It was a warm, sunny day with a light breeze, and the view from the high ground there alongside Innes Avenue had me squinting across the bay in pleasure. Way out in the pale blue water, shimmering silver reflections played around small whitecaps, creating a light dance that might have had me standing there for hours, just staring, if I'd been sure that, standing there for hours, I would not be inhaling radioactive dust particles.
As it was, I stayed just long enough to hear Saul Bloom, executive director of the environmental group Arc Ecology, an attorney representing the group, and several citizens with reason to be upset explain to a clutch of reporters the latest incident in a gathering scandal that has largely escaped the keen gaze of the city's mainstream press. Bloom, et al., were commenting on an incident that transpired in May, when contractors working on the Navy's cleanup of Hunters Point Shipyard dug into a layer of sandblast grit of the type known as "Black Beauty." Beauty, in this case, is certainly in the eye of the beholders; the grit subsequently was tested, and found to be radioactive at 30 times the background level to be expected at the site.
It's long been known that the Navy sandblasted ships used as targets in atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific at the Hunters Point Shipyard. In fact, in early May, SF Weekly published "Fallout," an investigative series by Lisa Davis that revealed serious mishandling of nuclear material, including contaminated sandblast waste, by a top-secret defense laboratory at Hunters Point.
It's been made abundantly clear that there is community and governmental concern about radioactivity at the shipyard. On May 21, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi released a letter that she and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer signed, asking the Navy a series of pointed questions that seemed to come straight out of the pages of "Fallout."
But the Navy reacted to Black Beauty the way the Navy has been wont to react whenever bad things happen at Hunters Point. "Fallout" and the congressional letter notwithstanding, despite a late-May meeting with community members at which nuclear contamination of the shipyard was a primary topic, when the Black Beauty tested radioactive, Navy officials chose to say not one public thing -- for weeks.
During those weeks, however, whistle-blowers were providing Arc Ecology with evidence about the radioactive incident. So, with a peaceful, sunny view of the bay (and some trenches containing Black Beauty) as a backdrop, the environmental group announced last week that it intends to sue contractors working on the shipyard cleanup, alleging they failed to inform workers and the public about the nuclear find, as required by law. The prospective lawsuit got some (muted) notice in the mainstream press. Whether it got the Navy's attention is doubtful.
The shipyard landfill -- a landfill known to contain many dangerous contaminants, and suspected of containing nuclear waste -- caught fire last summer, sending smoke over a nearby neighborhood for weeks before the Navy thought to tell anyone. Last Thursday, the EPA said it would fine the Navy for its failure to report the fire the crushing total of $25,000 -- or, less than one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the $150 million the Navy has spent studying and cleaning the base since it closed in 1974.
Not to question the programming honchos at KQED, but what the hell were they thinking last Tuesday?
While public television audiences all over the country were watching the always superb Frontline explain the energy mess, grilling the various pirates (Enron Chairman Ken Lay), bumblers (Gov. Davis), and depraved indifferents (federal energy regulators) with tough questions, San Franciscans eager to find out why their bills had skyrocketed and their lights were off were treated to ... a special on glass blowing?
What makes the programming decision even stranger is that Lowell Bergman, the star journalist behind the Frontline special, lives in Berkeley and has worked with KQED before.
When KQED spokesman Brian Eley was asked about his station's reasoning, his replies seemed a little deflated.
"Oh, I knew you were gonna be asking about that," Eley said. "Basically, we're in the middle of our June pledge drive ..."
He trailed off, perhaps weighing the fund-raising potential of a hard-hitting report on a subject of crucial interest to viewers vs. the finer points of glass blowing.
"Also," Eley continued, "a lot of the Frontlines come in late because they deal with breaking news." Again, he paused briefly, perhaps reflecting on the fact that Bergman had promoted his Frontline on National Public Radio nearly a week earlier. After talking in circles for a few more seconds, he sighed. "It's not really easy or simple. But I can tell you that there's definitely been some discussion about it [at KQED]."
Those discussions culminated in the Frontline episode finally being scheduled for June 12, one week after the rest of the nation watched it. And presumably after KQED had counted up the take from its glass-blowing pledge drive.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of pledges, according to KQED's 2000 annual report, one of the companies listed as donating between $100,000 and $199,999 is familiar to Frontline watchers: Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
-- Jeremy Mullman
Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein's ongoing one-man jihad against the East Coast media took an even stranger -- and funnier -- turn last week. Speaking at the convention of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists here, Bronstein accidentally declared old-school New York columnists Jimmy Breslin and Mike Lupica to be not just old but, in point of fact, dead. The New York Post's Page Six gossip column ran with the gaffe, and Bronstein was forced to clarify. Not without pissing and moaning about those damn media elites again, though. "What this really was about was an excuse for the Post to peddle an item with a celebrity name attached (my wife's)," he groused to the MediaNews Web site.
Ah, but those New Yorkers just can't let go, can they? Breslin, who is very much alive, wrote in to MediaNews to put Bronstein in his place. "The only thing I didn't do this year is drop dead and flop into the grave that Phil Bronstein dug the other day when he decided to bury the world," he wrote. "I see he manages to bring his wife's name in. Until then, it was none of my business. But as long as he did, I think he ought to go look at good stone grave markers for his wife's movie career." A hit, a palpable hit! But maybe we can broker some sort of truce: If Breslin will forget about Sharon Stone's role in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, we'll pretend Breslin's odd little cameo in Summer of Sam never happened, and Bronstein can make his insufferable inferiority complex a little less public. Deal?
-- Mark Athitakis
San Francisco's own state Senate Pro Tem John Burton, who wants his constituents to know he's lobbying hard for federal price caps, notes that, back in December 1999, prices for a megawatt-hour were around $30, whereas now they've reached $1,900. Burton points out that if similar price increases had affected other products, a package of diapers would cost $1,200, a pizza $1,000, and a movie ticket $500. "Clearly the spike in prices is outrageous," he says. "And unlike pizza, energy is a life-or-death commodity consumers can't live without." We loved the analogies and thought of one more: Under this pricing system, the $170,000 in campaign donations Burton took from energy interests in the 1999-2000 election year would be worth about, oh, $10,766,610.
-- Jeremy Mullman