Navy May Finally Have to Answer for Toxic Mess at Hunters Point Shipyard

Sup. Malia Cohen has demanded a hearing to uncover the cleanup failure and the subsequent fraud.

A heavily contaminated area of San Francisco filled with decades of waste from an old Navy shipyard is considered one of the most toxic sites in the nation. Hunters Point, on the city’s southeastern edge, used to be home to a nuclear-testing site where government scientists examined ships exposed to radiation. A sloppy mishandling of toxic items — such as the dumping of huge amounts of contaminated sand and acid into San Francisco Bay — resulted in soil samples today testing positive for toxic levels of petroleum compounds, mercury, and lead.

The Hunters Point shipyard has been slated for renovation since the Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site in 1989. In the years since, more than $1 billion of taxpayer money has been spent on the cleanup, and developers have long eyed the 500 acres as an eventual site for thousands of valuable housing units. More than $300 million in federal funds was awarded to Tetra Tech, which until 2015 was charged with the task of testing soil, structures, and drains for contamination.

But as the city began to prepare for Hunters Point’s future, a disturbing investigation came to light. Last September, the Navy’s review of the old shipyard uncovered a slew of evidence hinting at data manipulation and the falsification of soil samples.

The EPA followed up, finding that 97 percent of soil samples in one section and 90 percent of another were suspect.

In a letter made public last week, John Chesnutt, a regional EPA Superfund manager, wrote that, “In summary, the data analyzed showed a widespread pattern of practices that appear to show deliberate falsification, failure to complete the work in a manner required … or both.”

As word spread about the massive failures on behalf of Tetra Tech and the federal government to clean up Hunters Point, local politicians have been under fire for not doing more to address the issue.

“This is the largest eco-fraud in the United States,” Steve Zeltzer, a member of United Public Workers for Action, told a crowd in front of the Federal Building Monday. “Why are most of the politicians silent?”

Zeltzer must not have talked to Sup. Malia Cohen. On Tuesday, the District 10 leader challenged that assumption with a powerful speech that lambasted Tetra Tech, the federal government, and the Navy.

“There are questions around whether or not the land families live on now is safe,” she said, noting that her office has been flooded with calls from constituents in the past few weeks.

“We’ve had expecting families contacting our office to express real fears about giving birth near the shipyard, about raising their children, about our four-legged furry friends walking on open spaces. I’ve got people asking how to get out of their leases because they’re worried about the safety of their families.”

Citing the Navy’s “exceptionally poor job of communicating with the public,” Cohen has called for a hearing on the shipyard’s cleanup to better understand the disputes between federal regulators and the Navy surrounding the amount of testing that needs to be done, and the methodology of how it should be conducted.

On an environmental front, the cleanup has been a disaster, but Cohen didn’t shy away from making the point that the lackluster efforts are indicative of systemic racial discrimination.

“In no other community in San Francisco would a disgraceful site like this be allowed to exist,” she said, noting that it’s no coincidence that the failed cleanup is in a location that houses 20 percent of the city’s African-American population. “This is environmental injustice of a huge proportion,” she said.

Having a thorough understanding of exactly how dangerous Hunters Point is and where the cleanup went wrong is one thing — but Cohen hinted at something bigger in her speech.

“No one has been held accountable,” she said. “No one has paid a fine, faced criminal charges for fraud. It’s absolutely outrageous. We all should be upset. We all should be enraged and disgusted by the casual approach our federal government has taken in cleaning up land they have poisoned.”

By exposing the failures of the above entities, the hearing could open them up to future lawsuits. But Cohen is ready.

“It’s gonna be a hearing, and it’s gonna go down,” she said.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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