Community concerned about the Navy's plan for radiation cleanup at Hunters Point Shipyard
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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.
BayviewHunters 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. "There was no end in sight for the Navy," Forman said. "It didn't look as if we were doing what we were meant to do: namely, find Navy-caused spills."
Forman also criticized the Navy's old groundwater remedy as being "very passive." He proposed a remedy that includes more monitoring along the shoreline and using contaminant-eating bacteria to cleanup groundwater contaminants.
"The old remedy did not consider risks to wildlife and aquatic organisms at the shoreline, whereas the amended remedy will," Forman noted. "It was silent on this issue, yet we know the area has a shoreline."
Ultimately, amending the Navy's cleanup plan is "about protecting human health and the environment," Forman said.
Green Action's Marie Harrison was critical of the Navy's failure to explain the risks in simple terms. "You talked about risk assessment, but you never told us what the risks were," Harrison said. "What is the risk to human life? How is capping going to stop it going into the bay? I'm not a scientist. I don't have a PhD. I was hoping you were going to give me some kind of knowledge."
Harrison also worried that the Navy was not factoring in the cumulative risks for people living and working in the surrounding community who visit the shoreline to relax. Told that manganese, nickel, and arsenic are present in risky quantities, Harrison was referred to online information at www.bracpmo.navy.mil  and to documents housed at the San Francisco's Main and Third Street libraries.
Other community members criticized the Navy for not doing enough outreach to the Samoans, Latinos, and Asians in the community, and for having taken too long to acknowledge radiological impacts.
"Do you really want us to believe that no one was aware of nuclear waste and spills, given this was a Superfund site?" said Espanola Jackson, a BVHP resident since 1948.
"What I expect you to believe," Forman replied, "is that until 2002, no one who had technical and scientific expertise had looked at the evidence, sifted through history, and done an analysis to put together a radiological assessment."
Jackson also accused the Navy of "fast-tracking the cleanup in order for Lennar to build houses," referring to the efforts of Mayor Gavin Newsom, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and others to hasten the shipyard's cleanup and early turnover to the city so the area can be turned into a massive development project pursuant to the voter-approved Prop. G.
"We are not going to accept anything less than total cleanup," Jackson said. "If you have to move that dirty dirt, do it. We need $10 billion. You said $60 million. You can't even scrape the surface with that amount."
Melanie Kito, the Navy's lead remedial project manager, replied that the Navy is "chartered to clean up releases of spills from Navy activities. Whatever remedy we put forth, we have to demonstrate that we are protecting human health and the environment."
Kristine Enea, a member of the community-based Restoration Advisory Board, told the Guardian that she felt that the Navy did not do a great job of explaining the risks of contaminants in, say, a major earthquake.
"If there's an earthquake, would the risk be like getting 10 x-rays at once, or having a three-headed baby?" Enea said.
Pamela Calvert, deputy director of Literacy for Environmental Justice, told the Guardian she's worried about shipping the contamination elsewhere.
"I'm really concerned that we don't solve problems in Bayview by creating ones for another community," Calvert said. "It's best to deal with it here. There is no such thing as 'away.' It's someone else's backyard."
Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, which does contract work for the Redevelopment Agency, said that Calvert's concerns strengthen the argument for simply capping Parcel B so that the contamination can't escape rather than removing the material.
Bloom said he blames the Navy's "incompetence" for the city losing the opportunity to transfer Parcel B early and speed development. "If we'd got rid of Parcel B in 2004, we would have been part of the housing boom, not the housing bust," Bloom said.
He believes the Navy's proposed plan is acceptable, feasible, and protective, but that "whether it's the best use given the needs of the BVHP is another debate."
While some residents are arguing for a total excavation of the site down to the sea floor, Bloom disagrees: "I think the covering strategy is a protective solution." He criticized the Navy for only having scheduled 11 days between its July 28 public comment deadline and its final draft, due out August 8.
"I'm concerned about the length of time they've allotted for the question that comes up and that no one has the answer to," Bloom said. "I don't think it is adequate or seemly from a 'we take your comment seriously' point of view."
Shipyard artist Rebecca Haseltine, who has rented at Building 103 for 18 years, says that she has consistently trusted Arc Ecology's advice on the shipyard cleanup. "But I also feel that we still don't know the half of what happened on the shipyard. The Navy denied that any radioactive material had been used at the base, until a reporter with the SF Weekly published a story about it in 2001."