Not far from the radioactive soil of Hunters Point, city environmental engineer Amy Brownell sits stoically in a room full of people who want her fired.
Someone tells her she should protect herself from criminal prosecution and become a whistleblower against the San Francisco Department of Public Health. But in a large meeting space down the stairs of the Southeast Community Facility on an afternoon in August, she’s here to do the exact opposite: Assure everyone that their health is not in danger by living adjacent to the Hunters Point Shipyard, a U.S. EPA-designated Superfund site recently embroiled in a fraudulent cleanup scandal.
Earlier this year, the EPA determined that on six parcels of land, as much as 97 percent of the data produced by Tetra Tech, the Navy contractor spearheading the former shipyard’s toxic cleanup for more than a decade, was so unreliable that the Navy ordered the company to retest it. In May, two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison after admitting they swapped out contaminated soil samples for clean ones.
As far back as 2012, whistleblowers have come forward alleging that fraud was rife throughout the shipyard. Still, health officials and regulators insisted that it was safe to work and live on parts of the shipyard that have been evaluated and remediated based on their historical use.
“We have multiple lines of evidence that it is safe for people to be out there,” Brownell says, waving a letter from the EPA’s Superfund division. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t remediation left to do.”
The letter states that, in spite of the fraudulent data, the agency doesn’t believe the radioactive contamination poses health risks. But for decades, the predominantly Black residents of Bayview-Hunters Point had sensed the historically industrial area was different, as they faced poor health outcomes that can’t simply be explained away. Breast cancer rates there are twice the San Francisco average, and the life expectancy averages fully 14 years less than that of San Franciscans who live on Russian Hill.
Brownell had downplayed this neighborhood-wide experience in the past — and community members are loath to forget it.
Marie Harrison, a Bayview advocate who served for 16 years on a community oversight board to advise the cleanup, says the ongoing effort has left her with “a lot of built-up anxiety.”
“I don’t know how long I am going to be here,” she says. “But I sure as hell am not going anywhere until I make sure you all clean up that shipyard correctly.”
Jutting into the Bay in the southeast corner of San Francisco, the massive development couldn’t come soon enough to alleviate the city’s housing crisis. Mayor Ed Lee promised to add 30,000 new homes by 2020, and the Hunters Point and Candlestick neighborhoods are ground zero for that effort. More than half of the roughly 6,000 affordable homes overseen by the city’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure are set to go there.
But the site’s past as a shipyard has come back to haunt it, just as construction is set to go into high gear. The hazardous waste that caused the EPA to deem it a Superfund site means the Navy is responsible for cleaning up its former shipyard before developer Five Point Holdings can construct more homes. To do this, the Navy contracted civil-engineering firm Tetra Tech for an estimated $300 million between 2002 and 2016 to remediate the roughly 500-acre site. As far back as World War II, when the Navy used the drydock to clean ships exposed to atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean, Hunters Point became contaminated with radioactive cesium-137 and other hazardous materials: asbestos, glow-in-the-dark paint, lead, and pesticides.
It appears no one knew just how extensive the contamination was. The remediation effort is ongoing, and has been subject to oversight by the U.S. EPA, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Additionally, the shipyard development came with a federally mandated Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a sort of neighborhood council that Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a former physician specialist for the city’s Department of Public Health, joined in 2000. Her fellow elected members included government representatives, teachers, scientists, doctors, and regular residents rooted in the community.
The RAB was also, by all appearances, the only truly democratic process that enabled residents living near toxic hotspots to voice their concerns about the ongoing cleanup. Advocates point out that “community acceptance” of the cleanup process is a guiding criteria of the Superfund law.
In 2001, Porter Sumchai formed a radiological subcommittee as the “history of the shipyard was declassified,” she says. More details of the shipyard’s toxic past were unearthed, such as the Navy’s operation of a nuclear warfare research lab on the shipyard from 1946 to 1969.
Although testing continues in other zones of the overall project site, three specific sections with largely vacant buildings — dubbed Parcel A, Parcel E, and Parcel G — constitute the main areas of concern. Parcel A became the first site transferred to the city after regulators stamped it clean in 2004. Since 2013, more than 300 homes have been developed on the hilltop, the first of more than 10,500 residences planned for what will be the city’s largest mixed-use development in a century. (The EPA ordered land transfers to the city halted in 2016, years after first reports of malpractice surfaced. )
Porter Sumchai says she and others on the board did not feel confident that Parcel A was safe for residential development. Apart from several buildings known to be radiologically affected, Porter Sumchai says there was the “adjacent issue of the Parcel E landfill that was south and at the border of Parcel A.”
Industrial waste was dumped in the landfill, and remains on-site. Porter Sumchai says it contained methane gas within 100 feet of Parcel A and groundwater that could potentially move harmful substances around.
“It could migrate and enter into Parcel A — and of course, there were radioactive contaminants in the landfill,” she says.
Her concerns were not a priority, however. Five Point Holdings stands to make millions from the remaining development, which gives city leaders something they can point to, to show they’re chipping away at the housing shortage. But community advocates were concerned that new residents on Parcel A would face the same health disparities, like high levels of cancer and tumors, as the generations of people living adjacent to the shipyard.
In April, residents’ suspicions about why were vindicated. The environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility published a letter by an EPA manager that said the agency “found signs of potential data falsification, data manipulation, and/or data quality concerns that call into question the reliability” of up to 90 percent of soil samples tested on one parcel, and 97 percent on another. Whistleblowers have come to the Navy with reports of wrongdoing as far back as 2012, before any houses on Parcel A were even built.
Tetra Tech disputes this findings. But the allegations paint the picture of a company that had put profits over accuracy for decades by rushing through field work and falsifying data on Parcel G, a site once envisioned as the new home of the San Francisco 49ers stadium — and where residential development is now delayed.
Adding credence to the claims, Tetra Tech supervisors Stephen C. Rolfe and Justin E. Hubbard pleaded guilty in May 2017 to falsifying records in the cleanup and were sentenced to eight months in prison. Whereas whistleblowers attribute the falsification of data to pressure from high-ranking leaders in the company, Tetra Tech depicts its former employees as a few bad apples and considers its hands clean.
“We have zero tolerance for violations of established protocols and procedures on any project site,” Tetra Tech spokesperson and independent PR specialist Sam Singer said in a statement after the sentences were made public, one year later. “We stand by our work as valid, proper, and safe.”
Whoever is ultimately to blame for that incident, overwhelmingly unreliable data from a contractor eager to cash its check wasn’t the whole story. The EPA, the Navy, CDPH, and S.F.’s Department of Public Health seemingly failed to act, even as the contractor’s own former employees pointed these agencies in the right direction — and community members urged a closer look.
The decision to look at the housing development again came only after Curbed SF broke the story in January, prompting leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents Bayview Hunters Point, to call for retesting.
Hunters Point residents filed a $27 billion class-action lawsuit in May against Tetra Tech contending that the data falsification resulted in radioactive soil being left behind at the shipyard, as well as in chronic health problems suffered by adjacent residents. Two months later, new homeowners on a section of the former shipyard filed a separate lawsuit claiming they had been misled about the gravity of the contamination.
Because of this pressure, the Navy plans to retest Parcel G beginning this fall, assuring the public that the regulatory process will see the whole thing through. But Parcel G is only one part of the overall development. And if the same process failed to scrutinize the work of its contractors, how can the public — especially residents of Bayview-Hunters Point — trust it this time? Who watches the watchers, anyway?
For decades, Bayview-Hunters Point residents and advocates have fought for oversight of the shipyard’s cleanup and for health and economic justice in a disenfranchised community living on the city’s edge.
Marie Harrison is one of them. A campaign adviser with the national environmental and health justice group Greenaction, she’s been a resident of the neighborhood long enough to raise her own three children, her grandchildren, and “several other children who were not mine,” she says. Having been a civilian file clerk specialist for the Navy, she also served for 16 years on the RAB. Now 68, Harrison is bound to an oxygen tank she carries to community meetings and protests due to a rare lung disease that she attributes to years of working on the shipyard.
Harrison says she grew suspicious years before Tetra Tech’s contract even began, when Navy and public-health officials were unable to cite the cause of a month-long, underground fire in 2000 on a different site of the shipyard, Parcel E. Firefighters couldn’t even extinguish it, in fact. Adjacent to Parcel G and a stone’s throw away from Parcel A, where homes cropped up a decade later, Parcel E is still the site of an SFPD crime lab and a landfill where hazardous materials — including radioactive waste and contaminated soil — were discarded.
Repeated attempts to douse the blaze with water or by digging up the landfill were unsuccessful, according to news reports at the time. Surrounding residents reported seeing a colorful plume of smoke rising as Parcel E smoldered.
“You know when there’s flames shooting out of the ground in pretty colors, the smoke is dark and all you see is the heat waves, you see these beautiful colors — bright yellows, reds, and blues — that something toxic is burning,” Harrison says.
According to her, residents in the nearby housing projects were not given information about the blaze until some 20 days after it started.
“You’d think this was important enough to notify us,” she says. “This whole notion that they didn’t want to explain themselves, or bring someone in with the ability to tell us what was down there, what was burning. … At that particular juncture, I was ready to go in on them, full-force. I could not accept anything they were saying, and it went from bad to worse.”
That was years before whistleblowers began to notice suspicious activity. When Bert Bowers worked on the Hunters Point cleanup as a radiation safety officer for New World Environmental beginning in 2004, he says things were done by the book.
But when Tetra Tech obtained its own license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it no longer needed the services of subcontractors like New World, and switched to a fixed-price contract in 2009. It was around then that Bowers determined that incentives drastically shifted to do the job quickly and pocket more money.
“Once that model was used, things got out of control,” Bowers says. “They started falsifying samples and telling people to ‘Leave if they don’t like it.’ ”
Meanwhile, Tetra Tech employees were troubled by what they saw. Bowers says supervisors changed the settings on devices like conveyor belts to perform faster and catch less radiation in 2006. Fast-forward to 2011, when radiation control technician Susan Andrews says less-sensitive portal monitors allowed truckloads of soil to leave the site before being properly checked for radiation. Assumed to be clean, they were moved to unknown locations.
“I thought our job was to find radiation, not to turn our back on it,” Andrews says. “You have to do it slowly or you might as well not do it at all.”
It wasn’t just falsifying data and avoiding detection that stuck with Bowers and Andrews, but the hiring of unqualified workers. One health physicist hired in 2006 had a resume some suspected to be fraudulent, and by 2011, Andrews noticed Tetra Tech allegedly also hired unlicensed laborers. She began to report her findings to regulators.
Bowers and Andrews, along with five other whistleblowers, detailed numerous experiences similar to these. In short, it is unknown just how high the radiation levels remain in the soil because they believe Tetra Tech deliberately compromised the data.
Consequently, Greenaction and the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University filed a petition last year to revoke Tetra Tech’s NRC license. Still waiting for a determination, the groups filed another petition in July at the state level.
“The whistleblowers came forward because they felt so badly about what they had done,” says Steve Castleman, the clinic’s staff attorney and former investigator with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. “They’re feeling guilty. They’re also feeling angry with the regulatory agencies because they never followed up.”
Andrews spent hours telling regulators what to look for — such as samples handled by unlicensed staff — all to no avail. As long as the agency staff members charged with investigating Tetra Tech are the same people overseeing the retesting, Andrews doesn’t trust the regulators to finish the job right.
“For whatever reason, it’s fallen on deaf ears with the NRC, it’s fallen on deaf ears with the state of California, and — most importantly — it’s fallen on deaf ears with the Navy,” Bowers says. “There’s something broke within the system.”
The same year Tetra Tech switched to a fixed price, the Navy dissolved the RAB. It found that the group was not conducive to the cleanup, and that debate among its members had become politicized, straying too far from its mission.
“The Restoration Advisory Board was dissolved because it was no longer fulfilling its intended purpose of advising and providing community input on environmental restoration projects and was not an effective forum for public participation,” says Derek Robinson, environmental coordinator for the Navy at Hunters Point.
In its place, a “robust program of community outreach was adopted that includes a minimum of three public meetings per year, bus tours, and attendance at other public meeting forums” in lieu of a RAB, according to Robinson.
By Harrison’s account, the Navy disbanded the RAB precisely at a point when its members grew increasingly critical of the city and state regulatory agencies involved in the cleanup and after they pressed the developers on issues such as health studies and hiring locally. As the RAB advocated on behalf of nearby residents concerned with the development — and after the board took a no-confidence vote in Brownell in 2009 — its former members say they were silenced.
“We were told, ‘You guys don’t listen to us — we see no reason to continue this board,’ ” Harrison says. “My response was, ‘Are we supposed to be listening to you, or are you supposed to be listening to us?’ ”
In other words, just as Tetra Tech abandoned a clean-up model that whistleblowers say was working fine, the Navy severed its ties with a community group that was growing too vocal for its liking. Later meetings held by Navy representatives and developers in place of the RAB were led by Powerpoint and video presentations rather than community debate.
They were ineffective in inspiring participation among local residents, Harrison says. But she had begun questioning the validity of the cleanup process years earlier, following a series of communication breakdowns between the Navy, city health officials, and the neighborhood.
While critics have lost faith in the system, the people who run it haven’t. It took whistleblowers and the data dump in January for the public to demand that local, state, and federal officials respond — mostly with promises that retesting plans, following the same process that missed the compromised data, would get to the bottom of it.
A few months after Curbed SF first broke the story about the growing scandal at the shipyard in January, Supervisor Malia Cohen — who did not respond to a weeks-long request for comment — held a fiery, four-hour Board of Supervisors hearing to get regulators on record. After years of advocates calling for retesting, Navy representatives agreed to do so on all sites where Tetra Tech has conducted work.
But they left out the promise to retest Parcel A, only lightly touched by Tetra Tech, so its residents and Cohen kept the pressure up. Additionally, Pelosi announced in June that she’d secured the funds for the CDPH to rescan the site the next month — a remarkably speedy timeline, given the Navy’s foot-dragging.
Regulators have repeatedly stressed that there is no evidence the area poses a health risk, but given the questionable data from Parcel G downplaying harmful levels of contaminants, they have failed to demonstrate how the evidence can be trusted.
“Parcel A is safe,” Laura Duchnak, director of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program, told the supervisors at the May hearing about the residential sits. “I would live there. I would have my family live there.”
Castleman, Greenaction, and other community advocates have criticized the scanning plan for its lack of soil sampling and for not looking for the things that worry residents on Parcel A. Secondary issues, such as potentially contaminated sewer lines and storm drains once used for the dumping of radioactive waste, remain unaddressed.
When the CDPH scanned the residential site over the last month, it used a Radiation Survey 700, a detection and monitoring system mounted to a cart that combed the streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces around the residents’ homes. Dr. Mark Starr, CDPH’s Deputy Director of the Center for Environmental Health, says it’s more effective to do a scan so investigators know where to take a closer look.
“If we were likely to find something, it’s likely to be buried,” Starr says, intending to reassure. “If it’s three feet down, it’s not a hazard.”
Still, the device is used to detect gamma radionuclides within only about six inches of the surface — a major flaw, says Daniel Hirsch, a retired director of U.C. Santa Cruz’s Environmental and Nuclear Policy Program, because hazardous radionuclides like plutonium-239 and strontium-90 will fall under the radar.
“The extraordinary defects in the CDPH gamma scan plan make it impossible to detect radiation at the levels that would require cleanup,” Hirsch says in an email. “It is like a doctor wearing a blindfold and saying that s/he didn’t see any problem. CDPH is wandering around limited portions of Parcel A with the equivalent of a Geiger counter that can’t see contamination at the levels of concern.”
In responding to concerns by residents of Parcel A, Pelosi merely introduced a sideshow of potential mismanagement. Separately, a draft plan for the retesting of Parcel G, where the EPA has called almost all data collected by Tetra Tech into question, was released in June — but the final word on whether Tetra Tech’s data is false won’t come until the Navy completes its work.
The comment period — doubled to 60 days, at Cohen’s behest, to give the public more time — ended last week, and testing will begin by the end of the year. The Navy has estimated it will take two years to close this chapter. That timeline is seen as far too short by critics like Castleman, an effort to show that they are doing something — and fast.
“The quicker they try and do it, the worse job they’re gonna do,” Castleman says. “They’ve already wasted a decade. What’s the hurry?”
Under an $8.75-million contract, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. will resurvey buildings that had previously been identified as affected by radiation, and is still searching for a contractor to perform the soil testing. A third-party contractor, Battelle, will independently oversee the work — but advocates were dismayed that the Navy got to choose the firm. SFDPH is one of the agencies that may collect its own scans and visit the site, although Brownell, the city environmental engineer, has not confirmed that she will. EPA representatives will also conduct site visits and “review documents related to Navy plans, testing, cleanup work, reports, and other Navy site work,” according to an agency spokesperson, who added that split samples will be reviewed in different laboratories to prevent cheating.
Last week, the agency blasted the Navy’s draft work plan, which will guide the retesting of Parcel G, for not reflecting a “scientifically driven retesting strategy” it had previously recommended and for not providing information on a “path forward,” should contamination be found.
“Without the requested changes, the approach will not provide the necessary confidence level to establish when Parcel G would be suitable for redevelopment,” wrote Angeles Herrera, the assistant director of the EPA’s Superfund Division, of the Navy’s current draft plan.
The EPA also urged the Navy to make future versions of the draft plan “more understandable to a general audience.”
Apart from the extraordinary prospect of one federal entity publicly rebuking another over its questionable methods, advocates believe citizen oversight must be restored before any future testing conducted by the Navy and its contractors can be given credence.
“We need citizen participation,” says biochemist and former RAB member Ray Tompkins, adding that the Navy has “no business” in selecting or screening members of its oversight body.
Disputing Starr’s assertion that contamination buried more than three feet below the surface is not a hazard, Tompkins maintains that the only way to ensure that the shipyard is radiation-free and that the retesting effort is carried out in good faith is by drilling “nine to 12 feet, at minimum” beneath the ground throughout the shipyard. He called the Parcel G draft work plan incomplete.
“A lot of the data is being held back and not openly presented to us. Therefore, how can you make an evaluation?” Tompkins says. “It is a false representation, a Trumpism, to say that the community has been given the data to review and evaluate the plan. We have not seen the scientific evidence you need to look at.”
Likewise, Harrison says that her hope for “a real cleanup and real retesting” would start with “the oversight of a community-gathered board of environmental organizations that actually know what to look for.” Whether that soil is said to be clean, has been moved to an unknown location, or remains completely untested for migrating groundwater contamination, there’s a lot to sift through.
“If you want us to truly feel comfortable and know you did the best to protect us, let us oversee it,” she says.
Nearly two decades of spiraling distrust mean community advocates will continue to challenge the regulatory process that saw Hunters Point treated as a proverbial redheaded stepchild. The existing framework failed to protect them from its dangers. But they also have several more years of fighting the Navy and Tetra Tech, as four other parcels are still undergoing field work and another three await radiological testing before they can be redeveloped.
“The only comfort we can take in this is it appears the EPA, in part, has been chastened by this experience,” Castleman says. “It doesn’t appear that the Navy has.”
If the EPA keeps the Navy in check, development will likely be held up for years, but the entire project could end up safely remediated. If it isn’t, San Francisco could potentially have a shiny new community with a statistically anomalous number of gravely ill residents.
And though much of Hunters Point is still in the Navy’s hands, its largely unseen, unreachable operations leave SFDPH as the local face of a scandal they seemingly missed in their own backyard. As the meeting at the Southeast Community Facility — which reconvenes on Sept. 20 — shows, it’s well aware they are not trusted by neighborhood residents.
But when asked how to regain that trust, Brownell merely focused on providing data and information that advocates feel is rotten to the core.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Brownell says. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”