The San Francisco Police Department has requested retesting for toxic and radioactive contamination near a crime laboratory it owns in the Hunters Point Shipyard after concerns about workers’ safety were made public, officials said Wednesday.
Dozens of police officers stationed at Building 606 — a former police outpost and crime lab that still operates at the former naval base — may be at risk of toxic exposure, including radiation, despite decades of assurances by the U.S. Navy and other local regulatory agencies that the site is clean, as was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last month.
Deputy Chief Robert Moser addressed the grim allegations hanging over Building 606 at a Police Commission hearing on Wednesday, and said that the department is acting out of an “abundance of caution” in calling for the “retesting of the water, soil and air quality” for “biological, heavy metal, petroleum based and radiological contaminants.”
“I want to stress the Department of Public Health has assured us all along in the time we’ve occupied 606 — and continues to assure us — that 606 is safe for the occupants who work there,” said Moser, adding that concerns raised over the years were “documented and investigated” with an industrial health hygienist assigned to the site.
The recent investigation has called into question the site’s water and ventilation systems, which reportedly have been tainted with toxic gases, and radioactive materials discovered adjacent to the building.
Building 606 sits in a fenced off area on the shipyard known as Parcel E, which also contains landfills where for decades toxic materials— such as parts of ships exposed to nuclear weapon testing — were disposed of.
Still, the Navy concluded that the site posed no threat to human occupation when it leased out the building to the police department for below market-rate rent in 1996, according to the Chronicle’s report.
With some 41 employees remaining at the site, which until 2005 was used as offices for specialized units and to house a police crime lab, Moser said that the department is taking extra steps to ensure that “our people are safe and feel safe” at the shipyard.
According to Moser, the first efforts to retest water systems at the site were launched earlier this month by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which has hired a contractor to also test water samples for radiological contamination. Final results are expected to be available in approximately three months.
Rain water accumulating in a 4.5-5 foot crawl space beneath the building will also be sampled.
DPH has previously tested building 606’s water and “deemed it safe for human consumption,” Moser said, but added that the police department has supplied employees stationed there with water bottles for years.
Next week, the department will assess the air quality and “dust that settles in Building 606,” he said. A contractor licensed to conduct the radiological portion of the testing has yet to be selected.
Residual soil left behind at building 606 after a failing sewer was excavated and replaced at the site will also be examined.
“That soil was remediated soil brought in when the building was initially built,” said Moser, adding that samples of the soil are being taken and tested “not only for biological but also radiological contamination” before the soil will be removed from the property.
The call for action comes as the shipyard, mandated to undergo radiological and toxic remediation by a 1999 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site designation, is at the center of what environmental advocates have called the “biggest case of eco fraud in U.S. history.”
Navy contractor Tetra Tech, the civil engineering firm hired to clean the shipyard between 2002 and 2016, came under fire earlier this year when independent audits by the Navy and the U.S. EPA found that up to 97 percent of the company’s work at the shipyard may have been compromised or manipulated.
In May, two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison for admitting to falsifying records and swapping soil samples.
Moser told the police commissioners that previous testing at Building 606 and the surrounding area was not conducted by Tetra Tech, but by DPH.
Just hours before the Police Commission hearing, a lead representative on the shipyard cleanup from that department, environmental engineer Amy Brownell, had faced angry community members and advocates in the Bayview Hunters Point district. They demanded her resignation and accused her of being complicit in the botched cleanup.
Brownell has repeatedly stated that contamination at the shipyard did not pose immediate health risks to those living and working there. For years, local and state regulatory agencies have signed off on Tetra Tech’s work and allowed for portions of the shipyard to be transferred to The City for development into housing and commercial space.
According to Moser, plans to vacate Building 606 and relocate the crime lab to a facility in Potrero Hill will be completed at the end of 2020.
But Commissioner Petra DeJesus urged the police department to take a more “proactive” approach to ensuring its members’ safety.
“I don’t understand why that’s a two-year process,” said DeJesus. “It’s about getting our people out — 41 people are still there, maybe more. It’s something we should talk to the mayor and board of supervisors about to see if we can expedite moving the people out.”