In the wake of revelations of a botched radioactive cleanup at Hunters Point Shipyard, environmental advocates are urging city officials to take a closer look at Treasure Island, where toxic cleanup and development efforts involve several of the same players.
Advocates say reports of severe contamination, adverse health conditions suffered by current Treasure Island residents and malpractice in the cleanup effort by U.S. Navy contractors have long circulated but have been given little attention.
“Treasure Island was a former naval base. There is hazardous radioactive contamination [there], and many of the same agencies at [the Shipyard] — the Navy, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control, Tetra Tech … are involved in the cleanup,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental and health justice group Greenaction. “Whistleblowers have come forward and will continue to come forward with testimony about malpractice [on Treasure Island].”
Navy contractor Tetra Tech has made headlines in recent months following reviews by the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that found at least half — and on some sites up to 97 percent— of the data collected by the civil engineering firm in its cleanup of the shipyard, a heavily contaminated Superfund site, to be questionable. The company faces a class-action lawsuit by Bayview Hunters Point residents alleging “intentional fraud,” and two former Tetra Tech supervisors have been sentenced to eight months in prison each after pleading guilty to falsifying data.
The Navy parted ways with Tetra Tech on the shipyard project in 2016 but continues to contract with the company on other projects, including at Treasure Island, which is undergoing a comparable toxic cleanup.
Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Tetra Tech, confirmed the firm is “doing work at Treasure Island on a variety of technical projects” but emphasized that it is not involved in the “radiological remediation at the former naval base.” Citing “contractual obligations,” Singer deferred questions about specifics of Tetra Tech’s work on the island to the Navy, which did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Advocates and Treasure Island residents are urging city leaders to take a closer look at the Treasure Island cleanup and halt ongoing land transfers that are paving the way for a major housing and commercial development that has already begun to take shape on the man-made island.
A 2006 report prepared by the Navy in preparation for the cleanup indicated that regulatory agencies did not believe that there was a high potential of significant radiation contamination on the island. A year later, a contract worker found radioactive fragments on the island, close to where people were already living in subsidized housing — yet the radiation report was not updated until 2012.
In 2012, reporters from the Center of Investigative Reporting launched a yearlong investigation that revealed mishaps and omissions by the Navy and its contractors in the Treasure Island cleanup.
Treasure Island’s radioactive legacy includes a life-sized mockup of a patrol ship called the USS Pandemonium, once stored on the west side of the island where it was doused in cesium-137 and used in decontamination training for sailors, as well so-called “burn pits” in which radioactive and other toxic materials were disposed of on site, according to David Anton, an attorney representing whistleblowers involved in the Treasure Island cleanup.
Anton said Tetra Tech was just one of several “bad actors” on Treasure Island.
“If you conclude that you can’t trust Tetra Tech’s work, virtually all the reports that are used to drive what is being done at Treasure Island was done by Tetra Tech,” Anton said. “The Navy has a huge interest in having costs kept well and having things done quickly.
“Its dramatically more expensive to find radioactive soil and materials and have it shipped out as radioactive stuff to one of four facilities in the U.S. authorized to receive it,” Anton added. “There’s a huge financial incentive not to find this stuff, not to do the job right.”
On April 25, members of Greenaction and Our City San Francisco met with staff from the office of Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes Treasure Island, in hopes of swaying the mayoral candidate into appealing to the Navy to remove Tetra Tech from working on Treasure Island.
“Tetra Tech continues to run meetings on Treasure Island for the Navy,” Angel said. “We are concerned that Supervisor Kim has not pursued concerns about residents living next to contaminated areas, about health problems, and nobody in government has questioned [if what] Tetra Tech is alleged to have done at the shipyard by our own government agencies was replicated at Treasure Island?”
Kim told the San Francisco Examiner that her office is monitoring Treasure Island and is considering whether a “second auditing overlay” is needed. Kim said she is prepared to ask the state to “intervene and audit” the cleanup on Treasure Island, “as well as federal government,” if need be.
While Kim did not indicate that she plans to hold a hearing on the Treasure Island cleanup, she noted that she co-sponsored a call for a hearing on the Hunters Point Shipyard data falsification scandal initiated by Supervisor Malia Cohen last month. That hearing is scheduled at the Land Use Committee on May 14, and Kim said she may address Treasure Island then.
“It’s alarming and disconcerting that a federal contractor is lying to the federal government about an issue that is about the health safety and wellbeing of our residents,” said Kim, adding the recent Navy and EPA reviews “raised our eyebrows, knowing that Tetra is doing work on Treasure Island,” albeit “different work.”
Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island are part of the Treasure Island Development Project, headed by developer Lennar Urban and the Treasure Island Development Authority. Lennar is a stockholder in its spinoff, FivePoint Holdings, the developer of the 12,100 residential units and 4 million square feet of commercial space slated to rise at the Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point.
In response to advocates’ concerns, a spokesperson for Lennar told the Examiner the company expects that “the appropriate agencies will ensure that Treasure Island is suitable for development.”
The TIDA Board of Directors took up the issue at a hearing on Wednesday. Board member Sharon Lai asked Bob Beck, the agency’s director, about Tetra Tech’s involvement on Treasure Island. President V. Fei Tsen directed Beck to prepare a memo in an effort to better understand the issues and ensure “confidence in the regulatory agencies that are overseeing the testing.”
The agency is currently working with the Navy to schedule a fourth land transfer of a site that houses a school and daycare center and has undergone remediation.
“In light of all of the news around Tetra Tech’s testing, my recollection is they are also the cleanup company for Treasure Island, and I believe a couple of years ago there were some inconsistencies with their findings on Treasure Island as well,” Lai said. “I’m curious if there needs to be some sort of peer review or additional review prior to the next transfer given that it’s sensitive receptors.”
Beck told Lai that there have not “been any concerns raised about Tetra Tech’s work on Treasure Island” from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state agency overseeing the Superfund cleanup there, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the Navy or its oversight division, the Radiological Affairs Support Office. But he did acknowledge the advocates’ concerns.
Tetra Tech is a large organization with “multiple operating divisions,” said Beck, adding that a subsidiary called Tetra Tech EMI is working on Treasure Island in an administrative role, which includes preparing studies, work plans and circulating documents to DTSC.
Beck explained that Tetra EC is the division that was “involved with the problems at Hunters Point,” but added, “although Tetra Tech EC has also done some work on the island in the past.”
A key difference between the Treasure Island and Hunters Point cleanups, according to Beck, is the practice of dividing samples taken from contaminated sites between contractors’ laboratories and CDPH laboratories for testing.
“At this point, I don’t think there is any reason to delay this [land] transfer from the Navy,” he said.
Beck told the Examiner in a separate interview that Tetra Tech is “not involved in field sampling” at Treasure Island, but that a majority of the fieldwork is being conducted by CB&I, formerly Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure.
According to Beck, new housing will be developed on Treasure Island in areas that have been cleared by the Navy, on land already transferred to The City for development. Final land transfers are expected to be completed in 2022.
Kim said noting the distinction between “the work [Tetra Tech was] doing on the shipyard and [is doing] on Treasure Island” is important, but added, “I don’t think it makes the residents feel any [safer].”