The Elusive Quest for Environmental Justice at Hunters Point [San Francisco]

The failed cleanup of a Navy site in San Francisco is a worrisome test of federal policies.

In the long-running battle for environmental justice, the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco is a crucial beachhead. The Navy and EPA have been trying to clean up the radioactive site for decades, so that it can be handed over to the city for lucrative real estate development by the shipyard’s master developer, Lennar Corp. But a series of remediation scandals and controversies have plagued the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which has been called “a textbook case of environmental injustice.” If the Navy and EPA can get away with a subpar cleanup at one of the Navy’s most hazardous sites, in one of the nation’s most historically progressive cities, environmental justice advocates fear a cascade of similar losses around the country.

The Navy bought the shipyard on the edge of the San Francisco Bay just 11 days after Pearl Harbor and employed 18,000 people there toward the end of World War II, one-third of whom were African American. Components of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, were transported across the Pacific from Hunters Point by the USS Indianapolis. The post-war shipyard became home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory for the study and decontamination of ships used in the nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. Top-secret radiological defense and fallout research, waste disposal, and repair of heavily radiated ships coming back from Bikini Atoll left the shipyard with extensive toxic contamination, but low on documentation of what was disposed of where. The shipyard was declared an EPA Superfund site in 1989, due to contamination from asbestos, as well as PCBs and radioactive materials.

Racist housing policies led many African Americans to settle in the Bayview-Hunters Point area in the years following the war, and the area still has the city’s largest African American population. Twenty-seven percent of the neighborhood’s 35,000-plus residents currently live within a quarter mile of contamination risk, according to a new San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, “Buried Problems and a Buried Process.”

The cleanup at the EPA Superfund site devolved into scandal in 2014, when investigators discovered that workers from Navy contractor Tetra Tech EC had faked remediation of radioactive soils. The massive eco-fraud scandal deepened further when investigators found that at least 90 percent of Tetra Tech’s work was suspect. More than $250 million in taxpayer dollars was wasted. Two Tetra Tech EC supervisors were convicted and sentenced to eight months in federal prison in 2018. Parent company Tetra Tech Inc. tried to scapegoat the duo as “rogue employees” purportedly acting on their own.

The Department of Justice joined ongoing false claims lawsuits against Tetra Tech EC later that year, suggesting the DOJ doesn’t buy that narrative. Tetra Tech’s attempt to distance itself from the alleged lone miscreants took another hit in 2020, when the San Francisco Bay View reported on how another Tetra Tech subsidiary was caught up in similar radiological sampling/testing controversies at another EPA Superfund site in Ohio in the 1990s.

The ongoing controversy surrounding Hunters Point recently flared up again this fall, when the EPA made it known that it doesn’t intend to hold the Navy responsible for a full cleanup at the site. Failure to do so would disregard Proposition P, a measure passed overwhelmingly by San Francisco voters in 2000 (and adopted by the city’s board of supervisors in 2001), which urged that the site be cleaned up to the agency’s most protective standards for safe residential use without restrictions.

“On one hand, EPA talks about the importance of community input, but on the other hand says it is free to ignore Prop P, one of the strongest expressions of community input imaginable,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)’s Pacific Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. His concern was echoed by other watchdogs and activists in the Bay Area.

“Rather than assure that the site is cleaned up to its most protective standards, the EPA intends to allow the use of far weaker limits and let the Navy walk away from much of the pollution at the site, relying on unenforceable land-use restrictions and covering up rather than cleaning up the radioactivity and toxic chemicals,” Daniel Hirsch, an environmental policy analyst, wrote for the San Francisco Examiner. This amounts to “regulatory capture,” which happens when an agency is influenced to act in favor of the entities it’s supposed to be regulating. Hirsch has previously outlined this and much more in four comprehensive reports on Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNS) for the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an advocacy group for which he is president.

Hirsch and Ruch were part of a local stakeholder group that met with EPA upper management in 2021 to discuss community recommendations for moving forward with the cleanup at Hunters Point. In an email memo to the group that PEER published in October, the EPA said they had convened an interagency working group with the Navy “to identify and resolve issues affecting remediation activities.” The working group was said to include “senior leadership from EPA headquarters and Region 9, the Navy, and California state regulators.”

When queried as to the identities of the working group personnel, an EPA spokesperson would only say that it includes “senior managers from EPA Region 9, EPA Headquarters, the Navy, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, the California Department of Public Health, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.”

These are the same agencies that Hirsch says have proven untrustworthy at Hunters Point, based on their prior actions and failures to protect public health at the site. The EPA seems to be taking a page from Uncle Sam’s playbook portrayed in a scene at the end of Steven Spielberg’s classic film Raiders of the Lost Ark, when archeologist Indiana Jones meets with Army Intelligence officials to discuss what’s going to happen with the Ark of the Covenant. “We have top men working on it right now,” one of them says assuredly. “Who?” Indy asks skeptically. “Top men!” comes the response.

The EPA’s vague assurances only lead to more questions. In the same EPA email to stakeholders, the agency noted that “the Navy has also hired an independent contractor to provide third-party quality assurance review.” According to Derek Robinson, the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Coordinator & Environmental Program Manager, the independent contractor is Battelle, an Ohio-based firm that happens to be a longtime partner to the Navy and US Department of Energy.

A prior review at Hunters Point from Battelle turned out to be not so independent after all. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the Navy hired Battelle in 2010 to conduct a cost-cutting study to optimize the radiological remediation work being done by Tetra Tech. Battelle in turn hired the Argonne National Laboratory – which then relied on data that was in part provided by Tetra Tech and vetted by the Navy – to produce a report that offered contrived changes to cleanup rules to save money for the Navy. Now the Navy and EPA are again asking the citizens of San Francisco to trust Battelle as an “independent” provider for “third-party quality assurance review” of radiological rework by the Navy at Hunters Point.

Asked how the Navy can still consider Battelle to be an independent entity, Robinson could only reiterate the Navy’s previous position: “Battelle was hired to provide additional oversight for radiological remediation activities at Hunters Point. The Navy, federal agencies, and state agencies also provide oversight for work being performed to ensure the public is protected and contamination is properly addressed.”

Earth Island Journal
Greg M. Schwartz
December 5, 2022