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Shipyard residents, advocates call for more testing after radioactive discovery

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Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai Porter, a former physician specialist for the city’s Department of Public Health, joined residents and activists in calling for further testing at Parcel A, a portion of the former Hunters Point Shipyard, after a radioactive item was found during soil testing. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

Alarmed by the discovery of a radioactive object in a residential area of the Bayview Hunters Point Shipyard, homeowners and advocates on Friday called for additional testing to include soil sampling and health checks for current residents on and near the site.

“There are enormous implications to what has [been found] but from my standpoint as a medical doctor, it’s time for us to turn our attention to the people — to test the people and to recognize that this is a public health emergency,” said Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai Porter, a former physician specialist for the city’s Department of Public Health, at a press conference held at the site on Friday.

Last Friday, walkover scanning tests conducted near Galvez Hill in the residential area, known as Parcel A, detected a naval deck marker containing radium — a radioactive material known to cause cancer, among other things. The deck marker was about 1.5 inches in diameter and was found buried some 10 inches beneath the soil, according to a report published by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) on Thursday. Its discovery was first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle Thursday.

Ongoing surface scanning of Parcel A for hazardous materials by CDPH began in July and is approximately 90 percent completed. The scanning came in response to mounting revelations of fraud in the toxic cleanup and development of the contaminated shipyard, and has been criticized by watchdog groups as being inadequate in detecting the full extend of potential contamination at former U.S. naval base.

The shipyard has long been known to be contaminated with radioactive materials such as Cesium -137, Radium-226, asbestos and pesticides, among other things. Its dry docks once served as cleaning stations for ships exposed to atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean, and the former naval base also housed a nuclear warfare research lab.

Reviews by the Navy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted last year found up to 97 percent of data produced by Tetra Tech, the navy-contractor that was largely responsible for the shipyard’s remediation, to be unreliable.

In May, two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison for admitting to falsifying records and swapping out dirty soil samples for clean ones.

Last week’s radioactive discovery unnerved advocates seeking accountability and transparency in the botched cleanup, specifically because it follows a decade of insistence by state and local regulators that Parcel A — located on a hilltop and historically used by the Navy as housing— is safe and free of radioactive materials.

“We have all been told time and time again there was no radiation here,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental justice group Greenaction. “Where we are standing — where those homes are and where this radioactive equipment was found — they swore up and down it wasn’t radioactive.”

Angel called the radioactive discovery a “ potentially a worst case scenario.”

“We need transparency and a full cleanup,” Angel said on Friday, contending that residents of the area were only informed about the radioactive deck marker after whistleblowers tipped off watchdog groups earlier this week.

On Thursday, Parcel A residents, including District 10 supervisorial candidate Theo Ellington and his wife, Seray Ellington, were informed via an email by the state health department that the ongoing testing had unearthed an anomaly.

“When you put all your faith in the government to protect the wellbeing of people only to learn that you were deceived, something is wrong,” said Ellington, who called for the comprehensive testing of Parcel A to include “actual soil samples by an independent firm. “

The Ellingtons, who along with other Parcel A homeowners filed a lawsuit against developer Lennar and Tetra Tech claiming they were misled about the gravity of the contamination, live some 50 feet away from a fenced off area in which the deck marker was reportedly found.

“This is less about money at this point. It’s not about investment or property values. Our health and our baby’s health is so much more important than that,” said Seray Ellington, who is pregnant. “We can only live off of our investment if we are actually alive and not dying of bone cancer, like radium can cause.”

San Francisco’s health department said in a statement on Friday that the discovery is proof that the state health department’s scanning effort is “working exactly how it is supposed to and residents can be confident that everything that can be found will be found.”

But Sumchai Porter called Radium-226 in particular a “bad actor” with a myriad of health impacts, and called for urinary testing to be conducted for the homeowners on parcel A as well as all residents “who live within a one mile radius of the shipyard” on a voluntary basis.

Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen, who oversees the Bayview Hunters Point and pressed the Navy to include Parcel A in its retesting efforts at the Shipyard, commended the City’s health department for hiring an independent expert who will analyze the deck marker for its radioactivity.

Cohen said she will decide on how to proceed with the re-testing efforts on Parcel A pending results of the analysis, which she expects to receive on Monday. It is unclear whether she will advocate for soil testing at Parcel A or for health checks for current shipyard residents.

“I am concerned that the navy said that this land was clean and that they transferred it to us,” said Cohen. “I’m concerned that the deck marker was found yet I’m pleased to know that over 90 percent of Parcel A has been rescanned and that here hasn’t been any other relics or radioactive material found.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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