Legislators demand better cleanup plans for a radioactive shipyard dump
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. "That's when regulatory agencies decide what the clean up should be, whether that's a dig and haul, a cap, or a mix of the two, " Cohen explained.
Part of the Navy's concern is the expense of trucking the toxic waste from San Francisco to a secure landfill elsewhere someplace designed to contain this sort of material (and someplace less likely to have earthquakes that could shatter a cap and let the nasty muck escape).
David Gavrich and Eric Smith say the Navy is looking at the wrong solution. Gavrich, founder of the shipyard-based Waste Solutions Group and the San Francisco Bay Railroad, which transports waste and recyclables, and Eric Smith, founder of the biodiesel-converting company Green Depot, who shares space with Gavrich and a herd of goats that help keep the railyard surrounding their Cargo Way office weed-free, say the military solution is long-haul diesel trucks. But, he observes, the waste could be moved at far less cost (and less environmental impact) if it went by train.
Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, a nonprofit that specializes in tracking military base reuse and cleanup operations, would also like to see the landfill removed, even though he's not sure about the trucks vs. train options.
"We don't have confidence about having a dump on San Francisco Bay," Bloom said. "I'm concerned about the relationship between budgetary dollars and remediation of the site. I'm concerned that the community's voice, which is saying they'd like to see the landfill removed, is not being heard."
Mark Ripperda of EPA's Region 9 told us that community acceptance is important, but a remedy must also be evaluated using nine specific criteria.
"A remedy must first meet the threshold criteria," Ripperda said. "If it passes the threshold test, then it is evaluated against the primary balancing criteria and finally the modifying criteria are applied."
Noting that he has not received any communication from either the Assembly Members or the Mayor's Office concerning the Parcel E-2 cleanup, Ripperda said that "the evaluation of alternatives considered rail, barge, and truck transport, with rail being the most favorable transportation mode for the complete excavation alternative. However, the waste would still be transported and disposed into a landfill somewhere else and the alternatives must be evaluated under all nine criteria."
Ripperda said it's feasible to remove the worst stuff the "hot spots" and cap the rest. "A cap will eliminate pathways for exposure and can be designed to withstand seismic events," he told us. "The landfill has been in place for decades and the groundwater data shows little leaching of contaminants."
Meanwhile Newsom has tried to redirect the problem to Ammiano, Ma, and Yee, saying he seeks their "active support in directing even more state and federal funds" toward cleaning up the shipyard. He made clear he wants to move the redevelopment project forward now.
Sen. Mark Leno is carrying legislation that includes a state land swap vital to the city's plans to allow Lennar Corp. to build housing and commercial space on the site.
But while Cohen claims the aim of the land trade is to "build another Crissy Field," some environmentalists worry it will bifurcate the southeast sector's only major open space. They also suspect that was the reason Leno didn't sign Ammiano's April 1 letter.
Leno says that omission occurred because Sacramento-based lobbyist Bob Jiroux, who Leno claims drafted the letter, never asked Leno to sign. (Jiroux refused to comment.)
Claiming he would have signed Ammiano's letter given the chance, Leno described Jiroux as a "good Democrat" who used to work for Sen. John Burton, but now works for Lang, Hansen, O'Malley, and Miller, a Republican-leaning lobbying firm in Sacramento whose clients include Energy Solutions, a Utah-based low-level nuclear waste disposal facility that stands to profit if San Francisco excavates Parcel E-2.
Ammiano dismisses the ensuing furor over Energy Solutions as a "tempest in a teapot.
"I signed that letter to Newsom because of the truth that it contains," Ammiano said. "Sure, there's crazy stuff going on. But within the insanity, there's a progressive message: the community wants radiological contaminants removed from the shipyard."