Fallout: The Past Is Present

The Nuclear Witnesses

Certainly, environmental problems at Hunters Point Shipyard are not limited to radiation. They're not even limited to things that happened on land.

Part of the environmental cleanup project concerns an area of the shipyard known as Parcel F, 450 acres of offshore sediment surrounding the former shipyard. In April, Navy officials released the results of a study done by their contractors to evaluate offshore sediments around the bay edge of the shipyard. The report is the fourth such study done in attempts to determine appropriate cleanup measures for the parcel. And, again, the recent report seems remarkably incomplete.

The highest chemical pollution in Parcel F, according to the report, was found in an area to the south of the shipyard, near the landfill. The Navy concluded that carcinogenic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- once widely used in industrial settings, particularly in lubricants and coolants -- were found at unacceptably high levels in certain parts of the sediment, and therefore would be cleaned up.

But regulators from state and federal agencies were highly critical of the overall methodology in the report -- and its tendency to make pollution disappear in the statistics.

In their report, Navy contractors considered only the portion of the Navy's underwater real estate closest to the shipyard property, something that regulators reportedly reluctantly agreed to a few years ago. (Navy officials have argued that San Francisco Bay is so contaminated by other polluters that the Navy's area, even after being cleaned, is likely to become tainted by sources outside Navy control.) Then, the Navy used a method of determining pollution levels that, basically, relied on mathematical combinations of test results, rather than considering the results individually.

The outcome of this combination all but excluded contamination from metals like copper and mercury, and showed that only one area of sediment around the shipyard -- the area near the South Basin -- warranted further evaluation for cleanup, essentially eliminating the Navy's responsibility for the rest of Parcel F.

Regulators were scathing in their responses.

In official comments on the Navy report, EPA officials said they believe that evidence from testing the sediment "clearly shows unacceptable risk" in at least four areas around the base property. In his response to the Navy's study, Ned Black, regional ecologist/microbiologist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, wrote: "Sadly, the Navy has chosen to produce a study ... which is little more than an elaborate but poor excuse to avoid the Navy's responsibility as a trustee and under [Superfund law] to protect the environment on and adjacent to Navy property."

The regulators also noted that the Navy had not addressed what, if any, ecological risk there might be from exposure to radioisotopes. "We don't like it if things are simply not mentioned," Black told SF Weekly. "We like things spelled out. Omitting things doesn't sit well with us."

Lee Saunders, the Navy's environmental public affairs officer, refused to comment on either the Parcel F study or the EPA's charges, saying that it was "too premature" in the process to address those matters.

The schedule for transferring the various parcels of Hunters Point Shipyard to San Francisco ownership has changed so many times that, in practical terms, it doesn't really exist anymore. The project is stuck in a sort of limbo, awaiting resolution of myriad environmental problems.

Among those problems is an odd and complicated argument about how much of Mother Nature the Navy has a responsibility to clean up. For example: Long ago, when the shipyard was busy and expanding like gangbusters, the Navy sheared off part of a hill above Hunters Point and spread it around to fill in low spots in the shipyard. The soil from the hill contains high levels of manganese, a metal that can cause mental and emotional disturbances in humans.

Navy officials argue that the manganese is naturally occurring, and therefore not something they have to clean up. The California Department of Toxic Substance and Control believes that when the Navy altered what was in nature -- by breaking it up and spreading it around -- the Navy took on the responsibility for the results, one of which happens to be manganese contamination. Complicating matters are the city's hopes to build the crown jewel of the Hunters Point redevelopment project, the Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology (BAYCAT), a nonprofit arts-based vocational training program, in one of the areas most contaminated by manganese.

The two governmental entities have basically reached a standstill on the issue. Talks are scheduled to resume on the situation in September.

In the meantime, attorneys representing the Navy and the city, along with various representatives of City Hall, Bayview activists, and Arc Ecology, a San Francisco environmental watchdog organization, continue to work on an acceptable agreement to transfer Parcel A, a former Navy housing area considered to be the cleanest part of the shipyard, and the rules by which the rest of shipyard property will be transferred. This agreement will allow the city to accept or reject each parcel of land after the regulators sign off that the property has been adequately cleaned.

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