Nuclear fallout

Community concerned about the Navy's plan for radiation cleanup at Hunters Point Shipyard

As the US Navy prepares to deal with its radioactive past at the Hunters Point Shipyard (HPS) — inviting folks to submit comments by July 28 on its proposed cleanup plan for Parcel B — community members are struggling to understand the threat and its implications.

Bayview–Hunters Point residents and environmental and public health advocates gathered July 8 at City College's Southeast Community Facility to hear from and question Navy officials, but few came away satisfied. Most expressed doubts about the Navy's credibility, or confusion about the exact risks to human health and the environment from the plan to clean up radiological, soil, and water contamination.

For the past 25 years, this 59-acre property has housed a colony of artists in the site's Building 103, in studios rented through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In September the artists will be ejected, either to portables and buildings on the shipyard or to an offsite location, so the Navy can excavate the building's storm drains and sewers where low levels of radiological contamination have been found.

HPS Base Realignment and Conversion Environmental Coordinator Keith Forman explained at the meeting that when the Navy first presented a cleanup plan for Parcel B in 1997, it had not surveyed for radionuclides, remnants of the shipyard's military past.

That 2001 survey revealed that there are 14 sites on Parcel B that may have been exposed to radiation, including Building 103. The Navy's 2004 Historical Radiological Assessment reveals that while Building 103 began as a non-nuclear submarine barracks, Operation Crossroad personnel subsequently used it as a decontamination center after an atomic test went awry in July 1946 in the South Pacific.

In that test, the Navy detonated two bombs the size used on Nagasaki in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll. One bomb, the HRA notes, was an underwater burst called Shot Baker, which "caused a tremendous bubble of water and steam that broke the ocean's surface."

"Then a huge wave, over 90 feet high ... rolled over target and support vessels as well as the islands of the atoll," the HRA records. "Vast quantities of radioactive debris rained down on the target and support ships, islands and lagoon."

Seventy-nine ships were sent to the Navy's radiological center at Hunters Point Shipyard for decontamination, a site chosen in part because University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University were nearby to support the radiation studies.

The following year, from April through August 1947, the Navy burned 610,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated ship fuel at HPS. Also, workers sandblasting contamination at the shipyard's dry docks showered in Parcel B's Building 103, raising the current concern that cesium-137, cobalt-60, plutonium-239, radium-226 (from radioactive decay of uranium-238) and strontium-90 could be present in underground drains and sewers.

The 2004 HRA also identified two plots on Parcel B, IR07 and IR18, as having been used as dumps for radioluminescent devices and possibly more sandblast debris. It also listed a discharge channel between a pump house and Drydock 3 as radiologically impacted.

Currently the Navy is proposing to excavate soil from IR-07 and IR-18, including known mercury and methane spots, and ship it to dumps in Idaho and Utah; fill and seal the suspect discharge channel; cover potentially radiologically impacted soil; and stipulate that these two areas be used as open space in future plans for the base.

The cost of the Navy's proposed radiological cleanup is $29.6 million. The Navy also proposes spending $13 million on amended soil and sediment cleanup, and $2.7 million on amended groundwater remediation.

Forman told the crowd that the Navy's old soil remedy was a "bad fit." Excavations were larger than expected, Forman said, and showed no pattern of release.