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San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - FROM THE COVER - Jason Fagone and Cyn­thia Dizikes are San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writ­ers. Email: jason.fagone@ sfchron­i­cle.com, cdizikes@ sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @jfagone, @cdizikes

mixed and matched. One third of prob­lem ar­eas on Par­cel G will get a more thor­ough type of test, the Navy says. But the rest of the trou­ble spots — in­clud­ing some places most likely to be con­tam­i­nated, ac­cord­ing to the EPA — will get more cur­sory checks. The re­sults of this par­tial test­ing will be fed into a sta­tis­ti­cal model to de­cide the safety of the en­tire par­cel.

While the plan ap­pears to ig­nore some pos­si­ble dangers, it also in­verts and rewrites es­tab­lished facts.

To be­gin with, the Navy mostly writes about the datafak­ing scan­dal as a se­ries of un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims, of­ten us­ing the phrase “var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions.” The EPA, how­ever, pointed out in its Au­gust cri­tique that “some fraud, ma­nip­u­la­tion, fal­si­fi­ca­tion, etc. have been con­firmed” by mul­ti­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­clud­ing a fed­eral crim­i­nal probe.

The Navy plan also makes a provoca­tive claim: The main prob­lem may not be that harm­ful ra­dioac­tiv­ity might still be there, but that too much clean dirt has al­ready been re­moved. Ac­cord­ing to the Navy, ra­dium-226 mea­sure­ments at the ship­yard “were of­ten bi­ased high,” caus­ing some soil to be un­nec­es­sar­ily tagged for waste dis­posal. “A large amount of soil (es­ti­mated 80 per­cent) was likely mis­char­ac­ter­ized as con­tam­i­nated,” the Navy ar­gues.

Many close fol­low­ers of the cleanup don’t know what to make of this state­ment. Jeff Ruch, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the watch­dog group Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity, called it “be­wil­der­ing enough to give an ice cream headache.”

“They ap­pear to be adopt­ing a new line that is based on fan­tasy,” Ruch said. “I mean, to sud­denly say, af­ter all this time and all this con­tam­i­na­tion — never mind?”

As it turns out, the Navy’s claim about the soil comes from the 2012 cost-cut­ting re­port, which also ap­pears to have in­flu­enced other pieces of the Navy’s cur­rent pro­posal.

Ti­tled “Low-Level Ra­di­o­log­i­cal Waste Eval­u­a­tion As­so­ci­ated with Var­i­ous Base Re­align­ment and Clo­sure Ac­tiv­i­ties,” the 2012 re­port car­ries the names of two sci­en­tists from Ar­gonne Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, a well-re­spected en­ergy re­search fa­cil­ity in Illi­nois. The Navy sought Ar­gonne’s ad­vice as a “third-party ex­pert” to help “op­ti­mize and en­hance ra­di­o­log­i­cal work” at the ship­yard, Navy spokesman Robin­son said.

But although the Navy presents the re­port as in­de­pen­dent, a fine-print dis­claimer says the pa­per doesn’t rep­re­sent the opin­ion of Ar­gonne be­cause it was “pre­pared as an ac­count of work spon­sored by Bat­telle Me­mo­rial In­sti­tute.”

Bat­telle is a sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy or­ga­ni­za­tion in Ohio with close links to the Navy. ⏩ Email The Chron­i­cle’s In­ves­tiga­tive Team: iteam@ sfchron­i­cle.com ⏩ To con­tact us con­fi­den­tially: https://new­stips.sfchron­i­cle.com

One of the 100 largest de­fense con­trac­tors in the United States, Bat­telle was awarded $450 mil­lion in de­fense con­tracts last year and has worked on por­tions of the cleanup at Hunters Point since the 1990s.

Bat­telle also has fi­nan­cial ties to Tetra Tech. A sub­sidiary of Tetra Tech, Tetra Tech NUS, is a Bat­telle sub­con­trac­tor on an ac­tive $100 mil­lion en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tract with the Navy. At least two for­mer Tetra Tech em­ploy­ees who served in se­nior roles at the ship­yard now work for Bat­telle. (A Bat­telle spokesper­son re­sponded that Tetra Tech NUS wasn’t in­volved with the is­sues at the ship­yard, adding, “We work with lots of dif­fer­ent sub­con­trac­tors.”)

In 2010, the Navy went to Bat­telle and said it had a prob­lem: Clean soil at the ship­yard, it said, was be­ing misiden­ti­fied as waste tainted with ra­dium-226, cost­ing time and money to ex­ca­vate and haul to a spe­cial land­fill. At this point, Bat­telle — be­ing paid by the Navy — ap­proached Ar­gonne with a spe­cific ques­tion: How could those costs be re­duced?

“We have ex­pe­ri­ence in mea­sure­ments of ra­dium and en­vi­ron­men­tal cleanups,” Kurt Pi­cel, the re­port’s co-au­thor, said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “We were sug­gest­ing some ways to re­duce the un­nec­es­sary dis­posal of un­con­tam­i­nated soil.”

Pi­cel de­scribed the re­port as a nar­row tech­ni­cal anal­y­sis. He and his Ar­gonne col­league weren’t asked how to im­prove the cleanup in a broad sense, or to make de­ci­sions for the Navy; they were asked only to ex­am­ine ra­dium pro­ce­dures with a crit­i­cal eye and find op­por­tu­ni­ties to cut costs.

So the sci­en­tists fo­cused on ra­dium in­stead of other ra­dioac­tive con­tam­i­nants at the ship­yard. Their anal­y­sis as­sumed that the data, pro­vided by Tetra Tech and vet­ted by the Navy, was valid.

“We an­a­lyzed the data we got,” Pi­cel said.

Based on that data, the sci­en­tists con­cluded the Navy wasn’t mea­sur­ing ra­dium cor­rectly, and these mis­takes were skew­ing the read­ings high, lead­ing to the po­ten­tially point­less dis­posal of some soil.

They ar­gued that, among other er­rors, nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ura­nium at the ship­yard was in­ter­fer­ing with the ra­dium read­ings, dis­tort­ing the scope of the ra­dium prob­lem — as much as 80 per­cent of soil al­ready re­moved as ra­dium-tainted waste didn’t need to be, the Ar­gonne au­thors wrote. They sug­gested a dif­fer­ent method of mea­sure­ment that would pick up only ra­dium, re­sult­ing in a lower ra­dium read­ing that the Navy terms “more re­li­able.”

How­ever, this anal­y­sis as­sumes that all ura­nium at the ship­yard is nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring. It’s not. Small con­cen­tra­tions do oc­cur in soil, but ura­nium is also used to make atomic weapons and spreads through fall­out. Large amounts of ura­nium were brought to the ship­yard in the 1940s and ’50s fol­low­ing nu­clear tests.

Said Hirsch: “If you’re liv­ing at Hunters Point and you have kids there, you don’t re­ally care if your kid is get­ting ex­posed to ra­dium, ura­nium, or both of them. You shouldn’t have them ex­posed at all.”

In plan­ning its new tests on Par­cel G, the Navy isn’t re­ly­ing on the 2012 con­clu­sions about “the ex­tent and amount of con­tam­i­na­tion,” Robin­son said, and de­ci­sions go­ing for­ward will be based on new data. But key parts of the retest­ing plan are clearly in­spired by the old re­port.

In the new plan, the Navy ar­gues that the process for mea­sur­ing ra­dium should be changed in ways that re­flect the old cost-cut­ting sug­ges­tions. The Navy also wants to re­cal­cu­late the ac­cepted “back­ground level” for ra­dium. The back­ground level is one of the most im­por­tant num­bers in the cleanup be­cause it de­ter­mines how much ra­dium stays and how much goes. If the back­ground level is lower, more ra­dium gets re­moved. If it’s higher, less gets re­moved.

The Par­cel G plan de­scribes tech­niques that would likely raise the back­ground level, mean­ing that more ra­dium will be con­sid­ered part of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. In its cri­tique of the plan, the EPA con­fronted the Navy on its strate­gies for chang­ing the back­ground fac­tor, call­ing one pro­posed method “in­suf­fi­cient for en­sur­ing a com­plete and de­fen­si­ble anal­y­sis” — a line that, in the po­lite world of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors, is the equiv­a­lent of stand­ing on a chair and scream­ing.

The Navy is “mov­ing the goal­posts as to what they con­sider to be con­tam­i­nated,” said Ruch of PEER.

Although Pi­cel of Ar­gonne de­fended his 2012 re­port, he also ac­knowl­edged that some of its con­clu­sions rest on data pro­vided by Tetra Tech, whose work across the site is now in ques­tion.

If that data isn’t ac­cu­rate, “All bets are off,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously.”

Carlos Avila Gon­za­lez / The Chron­i­cle

Aerial photos of Hunters Point Naval Ship­yard Build­ing 401 in Par­cel G, the area that the Navy plans to retest for ra­dioac­tiv­ity.

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