Ship­yard retest in ques­tion

Navy’s new plan to check par­cel for ra­dioac­tiv­ity re­lies on old, du­bi­ous cost-cut­ting study

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jason Fagone and Cyn­thia Dizikes

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

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