The botched cleanup of the contaminated Hunters Point Shipyard is a sensitive issue in the highly competitive District 10 Board of Supervisors race this November, in which several leading candidates have ties to the project or its developers.
Those conflicts became apparent at a debate Tuesday where debate moderator J.R. Eppler, president of the Potrero Boosters, described the shipyard development and recent revelations of fraud in the cleanup efforts as “the elephant in the room.”
During the debate, District 10 contenders Shamann Walton, Theo Ellington, Tony Kelly and Uzuri Pease-Greene gave measured, amicable responses to questions about improving transit, curbing displacement and addressing crime and quality of life issues across the district.
But their exchanges became more barbed after a question from the audience about how they planned to address the shipyard’s problems, and whether they would call for a halt on all development until the cleanup is complete.
Walton, a current Board of Education Commissioner who serves as executive director for the workforce training nonprofit Young Community Developers (YCD), called for the “complete cleanup” of the contaminated shipyard.
However he was quickly challenged by contender Ellington over “funds that your community organization and you personally in your campaign have taken from [developer] Lennar.”
“Are you willing to publicly say you will have all development halted?” Ellington demanded.
Walton confirmed that YCD receives funding from Lennar, but noted that “less than 7 percent” of the nonprofit’s budget was from the private sector, and not all of that “from one entitity.”
Walton later told The Examiner that he would, in fact, have development halted. During the debate, however, he did not directly answer the question, but instead fired back at Ellington.
“You were on the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure commission that approved the shipyard project.”
The exchange highlighted the political tensions surrounding an ongoing toxic and radioactive cleanup at the shipyard, a former naval base located on the southernmost edge of District 10. The contaminated shipyard was home to a nuclear warfare research lab for some two decades, and its drydocks were once used to clean ships exposed to atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean.
SEE RELATED: Toxic relationship: the fraud at Hunters Point
The site is slated for the largest residential and commercial development project of the century in San Francisco led by developer Five Point Holdings, an offshoot of Lennar Corporation, a national home builder valued at $17.7 billion in June. In all, some 12,000 residential units are planned for the shipyard and Candlestick Point.
But that development is now facing delays. Earlier this year, it was revealed that reviews by the U.S. Navy and the EPA found that up to 97 percent of the data produced by Tetra Tech, the U.S. Navy contractor that conducted toxic remediation work on the shipyard over the course of a decade, was unreliable or compromised. Those findings came years after whistleblowers first raised allegations of fraud at the site.
In May, two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison for admitting to falsifying records and swapping contaminated soil samples out for clean ones.
The scandal is difficult to navigate for those, like Walton, who have supported the project as a source of jobs, housing and amenities for the neighborhood and backed its developers.
In 2016, Walton co-sponsored Proposition O, a ballot measure that allowed Lennar Corporation to build 5 million square feet of office space at the shipyard faster than city regulations allowed, exempting the developer from a 950,000-square-feet per year cap established years earlier.
That same year, Walton wrote a letter of support for Lennar Urban, which at the time was bidding for a contract to develop a Naval Weapons Station in Concord. Lennar spinoff Five Point Holdings, which is also developing the shipyard, last month filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy over its environmental clearance of the site.
Per the letter, Walton states that YCD developed 59 affordable housing units on the shipyard in partnership with for-profit developer AMCAL, using a $10 million subsidy and infrastructure provided by Lennar Urban.
Walton told the San Francisco Examiner that he supported “a company that has provided $80 million in community benefits to San Francisco,” and that with such resources, YCD “provides hundreds of jobs on construction projects, barrier mitigation supports” — such as uniforms, tools and union dues — “that have kept people out of jail.”
Walton added that Prop. O “was important for the Bayview” in helping to fulfill promises of “grocery stores, a stadium and other amenities” mandated as a result of Candlestick Point and shipyard developments that “never materialized.”
“Prop. O allows us to bring anchor businesses, grocery stores and other economic opportunities to Bayview, so that we can live and work in our own neighborhoods and communities,” he said.
But community advocates and Bayview Hunters Point residents have said for years that they have not seen the promised returns on the community benefits negotiated with Lennar for the project.
“City officials promoted Lennar as the only deep-pocketed developer capable of bringing jobs, housing, education and health for The City’s long ignored Black community,” said John Eller, who in an email to the San Francisco Examiner described himself as a former community organizer who “struggled for the first nine years of this project to deliver jobs and affordable housing to the community.”
“Despite gifting significant public resources of free land and millions in public funding to Lennar, the return has been a new billion dollar spinoff, Five Point, and a shell game of minimal, delayed or manipulated benefits to the residents of Bayview Hunters Point,” wrote Eller. He added that city officials have failed “to hold the developer of over 1,100 San Francisco acres accountable for risk of losing potential consulting jobs when they leave City Hall or bundled political donations to advance their political careers.”
On Tuesday, Walton called for the entire shipyard to be retested and for its cleanup to be prioritized and led by “academia.”
A personal issue
Kelly, a longtime District 10 advocate and Potrero Hill Democratic Club President, on Tuesday echoed calls he has made previously for “all development on the entire shipyard” to be halted “until the shipyard is contamination free.”
Now making his third run for the Board of Supervisors, Kelly has said that he wants to use the seat to advocate for better health outcomes and address racial disparities for residents of San Francisco’s southside, among other things.
“It’s 30 years into the process and no authority can say with any authority that the shipyard is safe,” said Kelly. “We in the neighborhood knew what’s going on — we knew they weren’t doing the testing fully and The City put us off. That is a scandal …no one is talking about.”
Ellington, board president of the Bayview Opera House, lists his priorities as “affordable housing, solving homelessness, safe and clean streets.”
But the shipyard issue is, for him, more “personal.”
Since 2016, Ellington, who grew up in the Bayview, has lived in one of the more than 300 homes already built on part of the shipyard.
In July, he was one of several Shipyard homeowners to sue Tetra Tech and the site’s developers — Lennar Corporation and its offshoot, Five Point Holdings — for failing to disclose that there was “rampant fraud” in the shipyard’s testing and cleanup process and knowingly selling “badly contaminated land.”
The residential site where he lives, known as Parcel A, is now undergoing retesting for radiological contamination by the California Department of Public Health. The Navy is slated to launch retesting efforts in other areas where Tetra Tech worked and where fraud is suspected later this year.
“I own a unit on the shipyard with my wife. We are expecting our first child later this year,” said Ellington. “I refuse to sit back and allow companies like Tetra Tech to put greed over our health outcomes.”
He criticized city agencies for failing to respond to the growing scandal for “100 days.”
But before becoming an advocate in the shipyard fraud, Ellington between 2012 and 2014 sat on the commission of one of the main local agencies overseeing the cleanup — and that accepted land for development that may still be contaminated, as was first reported by Curbed SF.
Ellington told the San Francisco Examiner that there is “no correlation between my role at OCII and the soil samples.”
“My role at [the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure] was design review. We had property management oversight and the ability to issue bonds to pay for debt service,” he said. “There were three state departments that were supposed to oversee this project and they failed us. For me, it’s making sure we hold those folks accountable.”
Pease-Greene, a Bayview native who works for the nonprofit developer Bridge Housing, said she has been well aware of the concerns of marginalized communities living near the Shipyard.
“For years, when I stayed on McKinnon [Avenue], there was a stench and for years community members have complained about being sick and about asthma, about their children being sick,” she said, adding that she would turn to the community for ideas on how to manage the cleanup and development by forming an advisory “sub-committee.”
“In essence we all are going to be living there, we still want the buildings to be built, but we do want everything to be totally clean,” she said.
Gloria Berry and Asale-Haquekyah Chandler are also candidates in the Nov. 6 race, but did not participate in the debate.