Affordable housing plans at shipyard move forward despite concerns over radioactive contamination

The City is forging ahead with plans to develop a 28,792 square-foot site on Parcel A at the Hunters Point Shipyard into affordable housing, despite ongoing testing for radioactive contamination in the area.

On Thursday, The City’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure issued a Request for Proposals seeking applicants to “develop, own and operate” low-income housing on Parcel A, a hilltop swath of land that was the the first to be developed into more than 400 homes under the massive Bayview Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment project.

SEE RELATED: Shipyard residents, advocates call for more testing after radioactive discovery
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The RFP to develop Block 56 — bounded by Coleman Street, Innes Court and Kennedy Place in the residential neighborhood — comes just less than two weeks after ongoing scanning of the site by the California Department of Public Health unearthed a deck marker containing radium in a fenced-off area close to people’s homes.

CDPH determined that the toxic object posed no health threats to nearby residents, reporting that the object was properly disposed of and that no elevated radiation levels were detected in the surrounding soil.

The RFP initiates a longstanding plan for up to 60 units of low-income, family rental housing at 50 percent area median income on Block 56, which is owned in part by OCII and in part by master developer Lennar. The proposal would also bring a family child care facility to the site.

The proposed housing will rise on the OCII portion, resulting in the demolition of a Lennar Welcoming Center currently located there, and next to Lennar’s market-rate homes that line the remainder of the block and overlook the former U.S. naval base.

But the toxic discovery has cast further doubt on the assurances of state and local regulatory agencies, who have said repeatedly that Parcel A was never subject to radioactive contamination due to its prior use as housing, unlike other areas of the shipyard.

“Radium dials are like cockroaches — there is never just one. This is possibly a landfill, possibly a disposal area,” said Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai Porter, a former physician specialist for the city’s Department of Public Health and former member of a community-led oversight board to the shipyard’s toxic cleanup. “There is no reason for an isolated radium dial to be on Parcel A.”

The shipyard was used as docking site for cleaning ships exposed to atomic bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean and housed a nuclear warfare research lab for several decades, earning it a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site designation in 1989.

Tetra Tech, the Navy-contractor tasked with remediation of the shipyard for nearly a decade, is facing a number of lawsuits after independent reviews by the Navy and EPA last year found that up to 97 percent of data collected by the company on some sites is potentially compromised.

In May, two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison for admitting to falsifying records and swapping out dirty soil samples for clean ones.

Plans to retest areas where Tetra Tech conducted work were expanded to include Parcel A, at the behest of community stakeholders and city leaders.

An effort to scan publicly accessible areas for contamination was launched in July but quickly deemed inadequate by many Parcel A residents and environmental justice advocates. Following the deck marker’s discovery, they renewed calls for a comprehensive retesting plan that includes analyzing soil samples and halting all development at the site pending results.

“I’m surprised that they are moving forward, given the recent news. I would still like to see comprehensive soil sampling and an independent analysis of Parcel A as development moves forward,” said Theo Ellington, a candidate in the District 10 supervisor race and a current resident of Parcel A.

In July, Ellington and his wife, along with two other homeowners, sued Tetra Tech and Lennar, claiming that they had been “misled” about the severity of the contamination at the shipyard. On Friday, the former OCII commissioner said that he still opposed “any further development” on Parcel A.

“This land is city-owned land. We have an even greater responsibility to look after the health outcomes,” Ellington said.

OCII spokesperson Max Barnes said that CDPH’s radiological scans included Block 56, and that a 2002 radiological survey at Parcel A was also conducted by the EPA.

The project is expected to go before the OCII Commission for selection of a developer early next year. Construction “will not start for at least 2 years and we anticipate it will take 20-24 months to build,” said Barnes.

Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen, whose district includes the shipyard, said that this timeline and the ongoing testing at Parcel A “with no findings of hazard” on Block 56 were the reasons for her continued support of Block 56’s development.

“Between the nonprofit developer selection and finding their financing, it will be another two years before there is any start of construction,” said Cohen on Friday. “I am comfortable with that elongated timeline because that allows us the space to conduct any further analysis if issues come up.”

But several of the candidates vying for Cohen’s seat as district supervisor this November disagreed.

“Anyone who applies under this RFP, what sort of assurances are they going to have that they are building on top of something safe?” said candidate Tony Kelly. “I’m not opposed to housing or affordable housing, but it’s got to be on land we know is safe. I can’t believe I even have to say that.”

Candidate Shamann Walton, a current school board member and executive director of a nonprofit developer that has previously built affordable housing at the shipyard, said in a statement that “the development on the Shipyard, including Parcel A, must be halted until the entire area has been thoroughly re-tested by a new third party.”

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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