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