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Tetra Tech says it will pay for independent review in data falsification scandal

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Tetra Tech Chief Engineer William Brownlie told members of the press Wednesday that the company would pay for an independent review of its cleanup efforts at the Hunters Point Shipyard while Sam Singer, the public relations consultant hired by the company, listens in the background. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner staff)

The U.S. Navy contractor accused of falsifying data in the Hunter’s Point Shipyard cleanup on Wednesday called those allegations “false,” and said that the company plans to pay for an independent review to clear its name.

“We are fully confident that a scientific, fact-based and independent resampling analysis will prove that the claims against us are false,” said William Brownlie, a chief engineer for Tetra Tech.

Responding to mounting concerns by both federal agencies and community watchdog groups about the integrity of the company’s radiological testing and decontamination efforts at the Shipyard, which is slated for redevelopment with 12,000 units of housing, Brownlie said that Tetra Tech has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Navy that will not only validate its work, but “demonstrate that it was performed properly and to the Navy’s specifications.”

The Navy found that Tetra Tech employees mishandled and faked data in 2012, sparking an investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2014. Tetra Tech took corrective measures then and launched an investigation “on our own nickel,” said Brownlie, adding that the recent allegations are different.

“The issue that was identified [in 2012] was that samples collected at a certain site looked to be very similar, very homogenous. That was questioned because the site is actually very variable,” he said. “The new reports look at every site and say, ‘if there is slight variation in any data there is potential manipulation and falsification.’”

Specifics about which Shipyard sites will be re-tested under Tetra Tech’s proposal, what the testing processes entail, and how much the review will cost remain unclear.

Brownlie said that the company expects the review to be completed within one to two months.

Environmental advocates who have investigated claims of wrongdoing by former Tetra Tech employees for years said that given the extent of the suspected fraud, the company’s proposal and timeline are “a joke.”

“Community and Greenaction have demanded for years that there be comprehensive, thorough resampling of the entire original Superfund site, including parcels already transferred where people live today and adjacent sites,” said Greenaction executive director Bradley Angel, adding that whistleblowers have stated that contaminants were dumped off site.

“There needs to be comprehensive testing by government agencies with independent community oversight and it should absolutely be paid for by Tetra Tech,” said Angel. “For this to be done right — we are talking about decades of industrial and military activity, including with atomic bomb residue — This cannot be rushed.”

Derek Robinson, BRAC Environmental Coordinator for the Navy at Hunters Point, confirmed that a letter from Tetra Tech was received, and said that the Navy will be evaluating the “appropriate course of action” to ensure both the success of the cleanup as well as the safety of the Hunters Point community.

“Independent retesting is a critical element of the Navy’s Hunters Point reevaluation workplan,” said Robinson. “Its purpose is not to exonerate the contractors involved, but to offer a comprehensive, credible data set to reassure the community about their safety, determine the extent of any remediation activities needed, and complete the cleanup of HPNS.”

The Navy announced earlier this year that it will re-examine all data produced by Tetra Tech after an internal review completed last September revealed that nearly half of the soil samples produced over the past decade have potentially been falsified or manipulated.

This month, internal memos made public by the environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) indicated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded the fraud to be even more widespread. A review by that agency raised concerns about potential falsification and data manipulation in some 97 percent of samples taken from a portion of the shipyard known as Parcel G and 90 percent of soil samples taken from another site called Parcel B.

Construction has already taken shape on parcels deemed as safe for habitation, but the transfer of land parcels to developer FivePoint have been on hold since 2016 as allegations of fraud against the company were made increasingly public.

Environmental advocates and Tetra Tech whistleblowers have called out the company for manipulating data in an effort to speed up the construction of the housing development for some six years. Testimony given by former employees indicates that they were instructed by superiors to swap contaminated soil samples for clean ones, among other things.

In a letter to U.S. Navy representative Laura Duchnak, Tetra Tech CEO Dan Batrak said the company is “aware of the allegations made by former employees of a subcontractor” and “vehemently denies” that they were representative of Tetra Tech’s actions at the site.

Brownlie declined to address the whistleblowers’ allegations in detail on Wednesday, but questioned their motives as potentially being “well meaning or they may be financially motivated.”

He also refuted any allegations that whistleblowers were scapegoated by the company.

It is unclear if Parcel A, where residents already live in newly purchased condos, will be subjected to the retesting. Brownlie said that the Navy has yet to respond to Tetra Tech’s proposal. When asked whether he thought the area will be habitable, Brownlie said “yes.”

Brownlie told press on Wednesday that Tetra Tech has not “been able to review the EPA’s results in any kind of detail yet,” and has only seen draft third-party reports prepared by the Navy.

He said that the company disputes those reviews and questioned processes used to examine the validity of the data.

“The soil at Hunters Point is built on fill that is highly variable [and] the method they proposed we don’t think is fully accurate,” said Brownlie.

“I can tell you that when they looked at it site by site, any place where they found slight variations in the data they said [raised concerns about] potential falsification,” he added. “We know what our people did. [They] followed protocols, did things correctly. All we can say is we don’t agree with those reports.”

Brownlie pointed out that Tetra Tech was one of “many other contractors” that has “worked hard to clean up” and test for contamination at the shipyard, which was the site of a radiological defense laboratory and used as grounds for dumping of radioactive materials for more than two decades. He also said that its subsidiary, Tetra Tech EC, was the firm that “actually performed the cleanup work” there since 2002.

Sam Singer, the public relations consultant for the company, confirmed that Tetra Tech is no longer involved with the Hunters Point Shipyard cleanup, but is still contracted by the Navy for other projects, including at Treasure Island.

Tetra Tech, which performs over 60,000 projects annually, is currently not subject to any investigation by federal agencies, according to Singer.

Advocates have called for the company to be held liable for the $1 billion clean up to date, and several San Francisco leaders, including Bayview Supervisor Malia Cohen, have joined the ranks of those calling for accountability with a public hearing set for next month.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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