Bayview Hunters Point residents sue U.S. Navy contractor over data falsification

A class action lawsuit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court Tuesday on behalf of Bayview District residents claiming they are victims of environmental racism and suffered severe health defects as a result of a botched toxic cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard by Tetra Tech.

The civil engineering firm was contracted by the U.S. Navy from 2002 until 2016 to test and clean up contaminated soil at the shipyard, where a 12,100- unit housing development and over 4 million square feet of commercial space are slated to rise in the coming years. Tetra Tech, along with developers Fivepoint Holdings LLC and Lennar Inc., are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

So far, 149 plaintiffs have joined the lawsuit, claiming Tetra Tech engaged in “intentional fraud, greed, and disregard for the health and safety of Bayview Hunters Point residents, the present and future San Francisco residents as well as the greater Northern California community.”

They are seeking damages in the amount of $27 billion.

“Why $27 billion? Because it’s not enough,” said Charles Bonner, the plaintiff’s attorney, at a press conference Tuesday. He spoke at a hilltop playground overlooking areas of the shipyard that have been part of the cleanup effort and where recent reviews by both the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agencies have cast doubt over the integrity of Tetra Tech’s work. “Because it’s a language they understand.”

Some 38,000 people live in the Bayview Hunters Point community and “all are affected,” according to Bonner, who said he expects others to join the suit.

The Navy announced earlier this year that it plans to reexamine all data produced by Tetra Tech after an internal review completed last September revealed that nearly half of the soil samples produced over the past decade have potentially been falsified or manipulated.

Internal memos made public by the environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in April revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thought the fraud to be even more widespread. The EPA’s review concluded that there was potential falsification and data manipulation in some 97 percent of samples taken from a portion of the shipyard known as Parcel G and 90 percent of soil samples taken from another site called Parcel B.

Transfer of land parcels to The City for development was largely halted in 2016, but housing construction was underway long before that on areas deemed safe including Parcel A, where more than 300 homes have already been built.

On April 25, Tetra Tech Chief Engineer William Brownlie disputed both the Navy and EPA reviews and said the company would prove that its employees worked properly and up to the Navy’s standards. The company also offered to pay for an independent review of the data to clear its name.

Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Tetra Tech, told the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday that the company is aware of the lawsuit. He called it “factually incorrect and meritless.”

“We believe so strongly in the quality of our work that we have offered to pay for independent testing to demonstrate that the false and misleading allegations such as pertained in this lawsuit [are wrong],” said Singer. The company has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.

But the Navy found that Tetra Tech employees mishandled and faked data in 2012, sparking an investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in 2014. That agency fined Tetra Tech $7,000 after confirming the soil samples had been falsified, according to the lawsuit.

Tetra Tech admitted to providing false soil samples and blamed wrongdoing on low-level employees, but continued to lead the cleanup efforts.

Over the last six years, Tetra Tech whistleblowers have come forward to testify about the fraud, claiming that they were instructed by superiors to swap contaminated soil samples with clean samples to speed up the $1 billion cleanup, among other things.

“The brave workers came forward and proved that [Tetra Tech] lied. Nonetheless, the Navy gave them a second chance, saying ‘You go investigate,’” said Bonner. “Of course, Tetra Tech went out and said, ‘Oh no everything is fine, it was some bad employees, we will make up for that.’ So the Navy gave them more millions to clean it up.”

For more than a decade, Bayview community activists have called on local and state leaders to address environmental and health concerns impacting a largely African American population living near the contaminated former naval base. The shipyard was the site of a radiological defense laboratory and used as grounds for dumping of radioactive materials.

“They have a building here in this area that is so toxic they wont even tear it down,” said Esselen Stancil, a longtime resident of the area and a former organizer with an environmental justice campaign launched in 2005. “They had a fire here that burned for three weeks — they could not get it out. So they put asphalt on top of it.”

The wife of former Tetra Tech employee Chris Carpenter was among the advocates seeking reparations for the Hunters Point community. Carpenter, who died of cancer in March 2016, was a worker on the shipyard in 2006.

“Chris was working one day and he just kept complaining about [how the employees] weren’t protected — they needed to have respirators on, [Tetra Tech wasn’t providing respirators, the monitors weren’t working, they weren’t watering down the dust,” said Carpenter’s wife, Danielle Carpenter.

Carpenter said that despite purchasing his own safety equipment to work on the shipyard, he began “itching, and the cancer from the asbestos went from the outside to the inside.”

“I want Tetra Tech to make sure that the people of this community are taken care of,” said Carpenter. “I want to make sure they test the children… I want restorative justice for the entire community.”

Carpenter’s husband was credited by the advocates for being one of the first whistleblowers to speak out against the impacts of the cleanup on the surrounding community.

“Were it not for [Carpenter], tens of thousands of people would not know why they are suffering,” said Rev. Christopher Muhammad, a minister of the Nation of Islam. “The silence of our politicians, even after these revelations, is deafening.”

The lawsuit does not name the Navy or City, despite the fact that the Navy continued working with Tetra Tech for years and continues to contract with the firm for other projects. Community advocates and residents have criticized city and state leaders for failing to take action on the whistleblowers’ allegations.

“They all have responsibility, but we are suing Tetra Tech because we have the sworn evidence that they engaged in criminal fraud,” Bonner said. He added that his office will be contacting the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute Tetra Tech’s “criminal conduct.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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