Going nuclear

Legislators demand better cleanup plans for a radioactive shipyard dump
Radioactive waste was disposed
of at Parcel E-2


April Fool's Day is known as a day for practical jokes designed to embarrass the gullible.

But Assembly Member Tom Ammiano's legislative aide Quentin Mecke says the April 1 letter that Ammiano and fellow Assembly Members Fiona Ma and state Sen. Leland Yee sent Mayor Gavin Newsom urging him not to support a proposal to bury a radiologically-contaminated dump beneath a concrete cap on the Hunters Point Shipyard was dead serious.

In their letter, Ammiano, Ma, and Lee expressed concern over that fact that federal officials don't want to pay to haul toxic and radioactive dirt off the site before it's used for parkland. They noted that an "estimated 1.5 million tons of toxics and radioactive material still remain" on the site.

A 1999 ordinance passed by San Francisco voters as Proposition P "recognized that the U.S. Navy had for decades negligently polluted the seismically-active shipyard, and that the city should not accept early transfer of the shipyard to San Francisco's jurisdiction, unless and until it is cleaned up to the highest standards," the legislators wrote. "Given the information we have, a full cleanup needs to happen," Mecke told us.

But Newsom's response so far suggests he may be willing to accept the Navy's proposal.


From the 1940s to 1974, according to the Navy's 2004 historical radiological assessment, the Navy dumped industrial, domestic, and solid waste, including sandblast waste, on a portion of the site known as Parcel E. Among the materials that may be underground: decontamination waste from ships returning from Operation Crossroads — in which atomic tests in the South Pacific went awry, showering Navy vessels with a tidal wave of radioactive material.

"We have serious questions about the city accepting what is essentially a hazardous and radioactive waste landfill adjacent to a state park along the bay, in a high liquefaction zone with rising sea levels," the letter reads. "We understand that the Navy is pushing for a comparatively low-cost engineering solution which the Navy believes will contain toxins and radioactive waste in this very unstable geology. We hope that you and your staff aggressively oppose this option."

Keith Forman, the Navy's base realignment and closure environmental coordinator for the shipyard, told the Guardian that the Navy produced a report that did a thorough analysis of the site.

The Pentagon estimates that excavating the dump would cost $332 million, last four years, and cause plenty of nasty smells. Simply leaving the toxic stew in place and putting a cap on it would cost $82 million.

Espanola Jackson, who has lived in Bayview Hunters Point for half a century, says the community has put up with bad smells for decades thanks to the nearby sewage treatment plant. "So what's four more years?" Jackson told the Guardian.

Judging from his April 21 reply to the three legislators, who represent San Francisco in Sacramento, Newsom is committed only to a technically acceptable cleanup — which is not the same thing as pushing to completely dig up and haul away the foul material in the dump.

He noted that during his administration federal funding for shipyard clean-up "increased dramatically, with almost a half-billion dollars secured in the last six years." Newsom also told Ammiamo, Ma, and Yee that the city won't accept the Parcel E landfill until both the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency "agree that it will be safe for its intended use."

The intended use for Parcel E-2 is parks and open space, said Michael Cohen, Newsom's right-hand man in the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. The Navy won't issue its final recommendations until next summer.