After decades of cleanup efforts marked by scandal, scrutiny and concerns over the looming impacts of climate change, Mayor London Breed has decided that when it comes to the remediation of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, she’s content with the status quo.
Last week, Breed responded to a civil grand jury report that found San Francisco is unprepared to address climate threats to the shoreline Superfund site, refuting many of the report’s findings and dismissing its recommendations to conduct an independent study of the shipyard.
Specifically, the report asserts The City needs to better understand how rising tides, accelerated by a warming world, could seep into groundwater tables in low-lying areas like the Hunters Point Shipyard, a former radiological research laboratory, and push once-buried chemicals into what environmental activists call “a toxic soup” of contaminants into the area.
That’s a problem for the future of one of The City’s most ambitious and desperately needed housing projects.
Breed’s response characterized the existing oversight of the cleanup, being conducted by the Navy and overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and other state agencies, as “extensive and thorough” while also acknowledging that even after remediation efforts, “There still may be low levels of residual chemicals remaining in place.”
She also emphasized that the Navy understands the risks posed by rising seas and said the community is not at immediate risk of exposure to contaminated groundwater.
“While we agree that the cleanup process is complex and often technical and that climate change will continue to affect San Francisco in many ways, overall we disagree partially or wholly with many of the (grand jury’s) findings and recommendations in the report,” Breed said.
“The cleanup is designed to be iterative, incorporate new findings and identify future risks, such as sea level rise and associated groundwater rise, all with enough notice to make necessary changes to protect public health and the environment.”
Breed’s response drew harsh and immediate criticism from community members and environmental justice advocates who have been pushing The City to engage in a complete cleanup of the site for decades.
“It’s pretty much the equivalent of sticking your head in the radioactive sand,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Green Action. “As a city that promotes itself as an international leader in addressing climate change and promoting healthy communities and environmental justice, it’s a disgrace.”
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Sources familiar with the report said the mayor’s response repeats Navy talking points about the adequacy of its cleanup plan despite the report’s findings that The City should independently evaluate the new threats rising groundwater pose to the site.
Despite The City’s investment in groundwater studies elsewhere, the extent and severity of sea level rise’s impact on groundwater levels at Hunters Point remains largely unknown, sources said.
“What the civil grand jury did is they added a whole new dimension to this problem of the plan to leave much of the contamination there rather than clean it up,” said Daniel Hirsch, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap.
Hunters Point, a 936-acre Superfund site on San Francisco’s southeastern shore, was once the locus of San Francisco’s wartime efforts. The shipyard was taken over by the Navy in the 1940s and transformed into one of the largest dry docks on the West Coast.
According to city documents, a strong “radioactive tradition” was established in 1945 when one of the atomic bombs used in World War II came through the shipyard. Later, the establishment of a radiological laboratory on the site signaled its postwar future.
But since the shipyard shuttered in 1974, the cleanup effort has been botched and mired in scandal over falsified soil sampling, eventually resulting in jail time for two employees.
Even today, once forgotten chemicals continue to be unearthed. Last October, the San Francisco Department of Public Health announced that the Navy had discovered high levels of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 in the soil samples of one of the parcels.
“Cleaning up a contaminated site is not, pardon the expression, rocket science,” said Hirsch, who is also the retired director of the environmental and nuclear policy program at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s shovel work.”
While these radioactive materials will never disappear entirely, Hirsch said, they need to be moved from the middle of San Francisco. “We should never have contaminated in the first place,” he said. But “the cleanup is not complicated. It’s just expensive.”