San Francisco officials pushed for a complete retesting of the Hunters Point Shipyard on Monday in a search for assurances in a radiological cleanup riddled with allegations of fraud.
The U.S. Navy is in the midst of formulating a work plan governing the retesting of areas of the shipyard where radiological remediation work was conducted by its contractor, Tetra Tech, after an internal review last year found nearly half of the soil samples produced by the firm were potentially falsified or manipulated. A review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made public in April revealed the fraud was potentially even more widespread.
“I want the U.S. Navy to commit to testing Parcel A,” said Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes the shipyard, at a much-anticipated public hearing on the botched cleanup held at the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on Monday.
Dozens of Bayview Hunters Point residents have urged the Navy to test the soil under the homes on Parcel A for toxic residue.
Cohen’s demand to extend retesting efforts to Parcel A was seconded by supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Jane Kim, a candidate in the June mayor’s race. Supervisors Katy Tang and Ahsha Safai were present at the hearing.
The focus of Monday’s hearing quickly shifted from Parcel G, a site still in the Navy’s possession that was slated for transfer to The City for development this year prior to the Navy and EPA revelations, to Parcel A. Parcel A is a swath of hilltop land that was considered safe for habitation and approved for development more than a decade ago by the city, state and federal regulatory agencies implicated in the toxic cleanup.
Hours before the hearing, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell penned letters to the EPA and Navy also requesting an evaluation of Parcel A to reaffirm the safety of residents and workers of the area.
The Navy told residents of some 300 homes already built on Parcel A last week that the site would not be included in the work plan for retesting because the area was not exposed to the same radiological testing and waste dumping as other sites of the former naval base and because Tetra Tech had conducted minimal work there.
For more than a decade, city, state and federal regulatory agencies have verified the safety of the parcel.
“Parcel A is safe,” said Laura Duchnak, director of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program at the shipyard, at Monday’s hearing. “I would live there. I would have my family live there.”
Duchnak’s evaluation of the shipyard was in direct contrast with testimony given on Monday by whistleblowers in the cleanup, who received a standing ovation from the audience.
Don Wadsworth, who for 10 years served as president of New World Environmental, a nuclear-licensed firm that oversaw Tetra Tech’s remediation efforts, said he could not evaluate whether Parcel A is safe because “it hasn’t been properly tested.”
“We didn’t survey Parcel A. It wasn’t done at all,” Wadsworth said. “The EPA did have their van that ran through it, but that wouldn’t qualify as a release survey in any stretch of the imagination. It was the wrong instrumentation for doing the proper survey.”
Bert Bowers, a former radiation safety officer at the shipyard, said he was forced off his job after objecting to radiological practices in 2011.
“The day I got kicked off the site I was expecting to hear from the Navy,” Bowers said. “No one ever wanted to hear my side of the story.”
The supervisors grilled the Navy as well as heads of the EPA, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Department of Public Health on their failure to detect the fraud sooner. The whistleblowers’ testimony about a culture of malpractice and fraud on part of Tetra Tech dates back at least six years.
Amy Brownell, an environmental engineer for the DPH, said the department did not call for a hearing on prior allegations of fraud by Tetra Tech because they “do not believe that public health and safety is at risk.”
Preston Hopson, senior vice president and general counsel for Tetra Tech, made a brief appearance at Monday’s hearing. He was dismissed after Cohen questioned why an attorney was sent to represent the company in lieu of a technical engineer, whom she had requested. Hopson said he was ready to answer the supervisors’ questions but was disappointed that “they chose to grandstand.”
Tetra Tech has offered to pay for an independent third-party review of its data in an effort to clear its name.
“When someone is accused … that is not conclusive,” Hopson said. “We are saying we can test the soil, and that will answer once and for all that this is [cleared].”
Advocates called for community oversight of the Navy’s impending retesting efforts and urged the Navy to release its proposed work plan to the public at the same time it is submitted to the EPA for review. Duchnak said she expects the plan will be submitted in a month, and that the public will have 60 days to weigh in.
“All these years, we were told that we were wrong,” said Bayview resident and community activist Marie Harrison. “We believe that without the oversight of the community, the same thing is going to happen.”
Cohen called for a continuation of the hearing to September in an effort to monitor the ongoing cleanup.