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Firm at center of Hunters Point Shipyard scandal sued over North Bay fire cleanup work

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A car is seen charred and multiple homes destroyed along Sleepy Hollow Drive in Santa Rosa, Calif. Monday, October 9, 2017. A ceremony will mark the anniversary on Monday.(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A class action lawsuit filed by Northern California residents Tuesday accuses the embattled firm at the center of the botched radioactive cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard of making false reports about remediation work it did after the 2017 North Bay wildfires.

In October 2017, civil engineering firm Tetra Tech Inc. was contracted to collect and test soil as part of recovery efforts following a series of wildfires that ravaged Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and other North Bay counties, killing 43 people, burning over 245,000 acres and destroying over 14,700 homes.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, alleges that Tetra Tech Inc. and Ashbritt Inc., a subcontractor working under the supervision of Tetra, “instructed or knowingly permitted” subcontractors to excavate more than a permitted six inches of soil, remove structures unaffected by the fires and destroy property. It alleges they told government agencies and property owners that land that remained contaminated had been cleaned in a bid to increase profits.

Tetra Tech’s work at Hunters Point became the subject of public scrutiny after independent reviews by the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted last year found that at least half — and on some sites up to 97 percent— of the data the firm collected for a radiological cleanup may have been compromised.

Two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to time in federal prison last year for admitting to falsifying data in the shipyard’s remediation. Tetra Tech has denied allegations that the fraud was widespread, blaming any wrongdoing on a group of rogue employees.

In the North Bay, Tetra Tech was among other things responsible for testing all properties where AshBritt and its debris removal subcontractors performed work. Ashbritt, a Florida-based company, was hired by Army Corps of Engineers to manage the cleanup project.

The homeowners claim that the companies, incentivized by payments between $200 and $300 per ton of removed debris, allowed more soil to be excavated than was necessary.

“Because AshBritt’s compensation for excavation was based on the weight of the soil removed, it oversaw and directed the over-excavation of Plaintiffs’ land, with no consideration for contamination levels or the need to remove material and debris, in order to increase the weight of loads and, consequently, its profits,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit implicates employees of both companies in overseeing work conducted at properties subjected to the cleanup, claiming that managers from both firms were present at the sites “on a daily basis.”

The lawsuit cites a scathing letter sent by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services’ director in August 2018 informing the Army Corps of Engineers that it had discovered “unacceptable” work performed as a part of the cleanup, including “over-excavation, destruction of private property, and false reports of uncontaminated soil.”

An AshBritt spokesperson said the company only performed work on one property denies the claims. The company noted that it has already been dismissed as a defendant from another, similar lawsuit filed previously in federal court.

“AshBritt is proud to have been a USACE contractor on the project and stands by our work on the project and that of our over 30 local and California contractors that performed debris removal on properties,” AshBritt Chief of Staff Gerardo Castillo said in a statement. “The amount of debris removed from properties followed all contract requirements.”

Tetra Tech spokesperson Sam Singer on Wednesday said that the lawsuit “has no merit whatsoever.”

“We are sure that we are going to prevail in court,” said Singer.

Hunters Point

This week’s lawsuit comes days after a petition to revoke Tetra Tech’s nuclear license — effectively barring the company from handling radioactive materials — filed by environmental advocates last June received a preliminary rejection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Petition Review Board.

A spokesperson for the commission told the San Francisco Examiner that the negative recommendation was “due to the lack of new significant information in the petition not previously addressed by the NRC.”

In a statement issued about the petition on Wednesday, a lawyer for Tetra Tech said that remediation at Hunters Point “was done in full compliance with contractual requirements, and all misconduct was disclosed and thoroughly investigated by the regulatory agencies many years ago.”

Residents of newly constructed homes on a developed site of the shipyard, as well as longtime residents from the surrounding Bayview Hunters Point community, have filed two separate lawsuits naming Tetra Tech. The lawsuits cite health concerns caused by radioactive contamination at the shipyard as well as an ongoing toxic cleanup riddled by allegations of fraud.

In October, the U.S. Department of Justice moved to take over claims in three whistleblower cases pending in the Northern District of California against Tetra Tech.

Bradley Angel, director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, which along with the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic of the Golden Gate University School of Law petitioned the NRC to revoke Tetra Tech’s license, said that the commission is “ignoring the facts which clearly show that Tetra Tech should not be given any more federal work.”

Although Tetra Tech was not contracted to conduct radiological work in the North Bay, Angel said that he is “not surprised” by the new allegations of fraud in regard to the wildfires cleanup.

“The allegations are that Tetra Tech committed fraud regarding claims about the supposed cleanup work they were doing there, and allegations that they overcharged as they were getting paid by the amount of material they were removing,” said Angel. “If true, this is further evidence that this company cannot be trusted and should not be working anywhere in the U.S.”

Angel pointed out that earlier this year, Tetra Tech was granted a contract worth as much as $250 million for wildfire cleanup in Butte County, where the deadly Camp wildfire killed 86 people and consumed nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise in November.

“it’s time for Gov. [Gavin] Newsom to act, to revoke their license, and it’s also long overdue for the state Department of Public Health to respond to Greenaction’s petition to revoke Tetra Tech’s state radiologic license,” said Angel, adding that his group has also filed a petition with the state which has been “ignored.”

Greenaction will have a chance to address the Board’s rejection in the coming months before the NRC makes a final decision.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

This story has been updated to include a statement from AshBritt.

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