Shipyard retest in question
Navy’s new plan to check parcel for radioactivity relies on old, dubious cost-cutting study
The U.S. Navy’s latest promise to clean up radioactive soil and buildings at its former San Francisco shipyard relies on an earlier Navy effort to remove less radioactivity in order to cut costs, The Chronicle has learned.
The perplexing move has complicated the already-troubled project to rid the site of harmful radioactivity, provoking criticism from multiple government agencies that oversee the cleanup, as well as environmental groups. At stake is the city’s dream of one day filling the shipyard’s derelict land with thousands of new homes and businesses — San Francisco’s most ambitious redevelopment project in more than a century.
A 2012 report obtained by The Chronicle details some of the Navy’s reasoning behind its new approach to the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Back around 2010, the Navy was spending a lot of money to dig up and haul away radioactive waste at the shipyard. It paid a major defense contractor to help it find ways of saving money. The resulting report suggested changes to cleanup
rules. These changes would reduce costs by allowing the Navy to declare that more soil at the site does not pose a risk and therefore does not need to be removed.
In the years since, the shipyard cleanup has grown into a scandal, roiled by allegations of widespread fraud and the criminal convictions of two cleanup supervisors for faking radiation tests. The supervisors worked for Tetra Tech, a multibilliondollar environmental engineering firm and the main cleanup contractor at the shipyard.
Earlier this year, the Navy said that Tetra Tech radiation data from large swaths of the shipyard are unreliable, making new tests necessary to ensure that the site is safe enough that people who might live and work there won’t get cancer at increased rates.
But to the astonishment of both environmental groups and government health agencies, the Navy’s retesting proposal contains several ideas from the old cost-cutting plan, which was finalized in 2012. What’s more, that report partly depended on the accuracy of data provided by Tetra Tech.
As a result, experts and activists say, the Navy’s proposed fix isn’t really a fix, and won’t resolve continuing questions about the property’s safety. In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote that the situation at the shipyard is “highly unusual and serious” and criticized the Navy’s retesting plan, concluding it wouldn’t be “protective of human or ecological health.”
Two state health agencies agreed with the EPA, also pointing to flaws in the Navy plan — a rare public airing of protest from government institutions that often handle disputes quietly and behind the scenes.
“This is not a retesting plan to protect the public,” said Dan Hirsch, retired director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy program at UC Santa Cruz and a persistent critic of the cleanup. “This is a cheat. This is a game.”
Navy spokesman Derek Robinson said the Navy’s goal in retesting is the “protection of human health and the environment” and he defended the earlier cost-cutting study as an attempt to “optimize and enhance” the shipyard cleanup.
“This advice is independent of Tetra Tech EC data and relevant to future cleanup efforts at Hunters Point,” Robinson said in a statement. He said the Navy’s retesting plan is a draft and will incorporate comments from other agencies.
What happens next will shape the fate of 500 waterfront acres in a city desperate for space and housing. The shipyard redevelopment project envisions 12,000 new homes, millions of square feet of schools, retail and office space and significant tax revenue.
But first the contamination on the site must be cleaned up. Navy activities and experiments on the site during the Cold War polluted soil and buildings with long-lasting radioactive isotopes. The EPA declared the shipyard a Superfund waste site in 1989, meaning radioactivity and industrial chemicals must be dealt with before people can safely live and work there.
The process has been long and tortured. For nearly 30 years, the Navy has been chopping the site into parcels and investigating them one by one, hiring contractors to scan for radiation and analyze soil samples in a lab.
The shipyard is riddled with radioactive elements such as cesium-137, a component of fallout from nuclear explosions, and radium-226, which lasts for millennia. Decades ago the Navy used radium in science experiments and took advantage of its glow-in-the-dark