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With little fanfare, U.S. Navy officials in charge of cleaning up the Hunters Point Shipyard acknowledged last week that Navy personnel had burned large amounts of fuel contaminated with radioactive material in the shipyard's boilers 56 years ago.
In its announcement, the Navy contended that the burning of more than 600,000 gallons of fuel oil containing traces of plutonium and other radioactive materials caused no harm to the environment or to people. But the Navy did not make clear how it determined there had been no harm.
Navy officials declined comment on the announcement, which was included in a fact sheet given to members of the Hunters Point community.
But representatives of federal environmental and health agencies said the revelation should prompt new radiation surveys in and around the shipyard. And residents of the Hunters Point and Bayview neighborhoods near the former shipyard -- an area long plagued with health problems -- expressed concern about the Navy's disclosure, which comes after years of environmental cleanup at the shipyard and more than 50 years after the burning in question.
"Everything that happened, on the historical side, out there is significant," says Lynne Brown, chairman of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board, a community liaison committee. "The community would like to know what happened."
The Hunters Point Shipyard was an active naval base for about 40 years; the Navy decommissioned it in 1974. After leasing significant portions of the base to private interests for a time, the Navy has overseen a long-running environmental cleanup that, once completed, would allow ownership of the base to be transferred to the city of San Francisco. The city wants to redevelop the site for commercial and residential use.
In March 2001, the Navy released a draft Historical Radiation Assessment, billed, at the time, as an exhaustive, five-year look at radiological activities at the shipyard. The report -- which, many environmental authorities argue, should have been finished years ago, and certainly long before the shipyard cleanup began in 1989 -- cost some $2 million to complete.
That initial report contained no mention of fuel-burning at the shipyard, and deficiencies in the report, including some revealed by SF Weekly, led the Navy to expand and extend its investigation of shipyard radiation. What the Navy describes as "newly discovered" information -- the burning of contaminated fuel from ships used as targets in early nuclear weapons tests -- comes out of that expanded investigation, being conducted by the Navy's Radiation Affairs Support Office, based in Yorktown, Va.
Actually, however, the burning of radioactive fuel at the shipyard was first publicly documented by SF Weekly in the initial installment of its investigative series "Fallout," published in May 2001. That series, which relied in large part on the government's own records, focused on the activities of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, a research facility that grew out of America's early nuclear tests.
In 1946, as part of its weapons testing program, the United States detonated two 23-kiloton atomic bombs -- known as shots Able and Baker -- over a fleet of target ships anchored near the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific Ocean. Many of the ships involved in these Operation Crossroads tests were towed back to Hunters Point Shipyard for research purposes. This research, which centered on attempts to clean the ships of radioactive contamination, was the earliest reported work of the NRDL.
Most of the ships from the Operation Crossroads tests were too damaged and "hot" to reuse and were eventually scuttled at sea -- but not before the Navy burned the fuel from three of them, including the giant USS Independence, a 10,000-ton aircraft carrier that had been close enough to have been severely mangled in the blasts. Another ship, the USS Gasconade, was so contaminated that, government reports state, it could only be boarded by workers wearing respiratory gear.
Nonetheless, according to a fact sheet distributed recently by the Navy, in the summer of 1947 Navy personnel (with the approval of officials at the Atomic Energy Commission) burned some 610,000 gallons of contaminated fuel oil from the Independence,the Gasconade, and the USS Crittenden in boilers at the shipyard's power plants, then known as Buildings 203 and 521. Neither building is mentioned in the Navy's initial Historical Radiation Assessment. The buildings also were not mentioned as potential sources of radiation contamination in environmental documents provided to the public and regulators in conjunction with the cleanup at Hunters Point Shipyard.
The Navy's announcement on the burning acknowledges that the fuel oil contained, among other contaminants, plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years -- meaning that plutonium particles released in the smoke produced by the burning will exist, somewhere in the environment, for thousands of years. The Navy claims that the amounts of radioactive contaminants released via burning were too small to harm either people or other organisms in the environment.
If inhaled and lodged in the lungs, even tiny particles of plutonium can cause cancer. Construction associated with redevelopment of the shipyard would, almost certainly, kick up large amounts of dust. The question is whether that dust might contain particles of plutonium. Not everyone is willing to simply accept the Navy's safety claims.
"I'm glad we found out," says Claire Trombadore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the shipyard site. "Our main concern is what is there now, and is there a risk to human health, or the environment, or both? In our minds, what needs to happen now is to survey that."
Navy officials did not respond before press time to questions about the possibility of additional radiation surveys in and around the shipyard. The Navy also did not answer questions about how, precisely, fuel inside the Operation Crossroads target ships had been contaminated.
Last year, the EPA surveyed parts of the Hunters Point Shipyard with its Scanner Van -- a vehicle that, as its name suggests, scans for radioactive contamination as it moves. But the equipment carried by the van is so delicate it cannot be used off-road, and areas surrounding at least one of the buildings where radioactive fuel was burned remain untested.
According to officials at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency that monitors environmental health threats, there is no way to determine how individuals exposed to the burning might have been harmed. Those officials say the only way to know what, if any, problems might exist now is to test the ground for radioactive contamination.
Community members may well be asking the Navy for such testing in the near future.
"My concern is that the radiological standards were lower then [in 1947], and when you're burning radioactive materials, including plutonium, that stuff went into the community," says Maurice Campbell, a member of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board. "They're trying to standardize this as a safe practice, when it wasn't."