SF Supervisors Challenge Mayor Breed and the Navy to Bolster Protections at Bayview-Hunters Point

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A view from a hill of a dilapidated shuttered and abandoned naval shipyard with a dock and a rusting equipment, bushes in the foreground, the blue sea and sky past the dock looking out at San Francisco Bay
A view of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard from the Lennar at the SF Shipyard housing development on Feb. 25, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update, 5 p.m. Thursday, October 6: A government oversight committee with San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recommended Thursday that the city strengthen protections against climate change-fueled flooding in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

Several members of the board said they will pursue an independent task force over the next 18 months to examine how rising groundwater could mix with contaminants and expose the community of more than 35,000 people to toxic water and fumes. They also say an independent study conducted by outside researchers is needed to understand the issue fully.

“This is not just about Bayview-Hunters Point,” Supervisor Connie Chan said. “It is to help us think about and question the future of San Francisco in terms of our waterfront areas and how we protect our residents.”

The recommendations will now be taken up for consideration by the full board.

Last week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials sent a memo to the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, that said the agency plans to allow much of the toxic contamination to remain forever underground with potential land use restrictions and caps over toxics. But community groups and residents say they want all the contamination removed.

The memo seemed to contradict what Angeles Herrera, assistant director for Region 9 of the EPA, told the supervisors in late September.

“The bottom line is that EPA will not commit to the full cleanup of Hunters Point,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER's director, in a statement. “As things stand now, the plan at Hunters Point is to pave over contamination rather than remove it.”

“We need a full cleanup of the shipyard and all those contaminants, toxins and radioactive elements removed,” said Bayview resident Blair Sandler, “so that kids and pets can play and that food can be grown in people's yards.”

Residents asked the board to add language to require a full cleanup into its recommendations. They declined, but at the end of Thursday’s hearing Supervisor Dean Preston told community members the discussion is far from over and that the board will consider other issues related to the shipyard in the near term.

Original post, 2:24  p.m. October 1: Several members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, including its president, Shamann Walton, are challenging Mayor London Breed in an effort to bolster protections against climate change-fueled flooding for residents of Bayview-Hunters Point.

Walton, who is pursuing an independent commission to make sure that happens, also urged U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials Thursday, during an oversight committee hearing at City Hall, to compel the Navy to update the climate science it uses to inform the toxic cleanup at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, an 866-acre federal Superfund site the EPA has designated as highly contaminated with hazardous waste. Radioactive contamination remains buried in the soil along the edge of Bayview-Hunters Point, on the city’s southeast shoreline, among the most polluted areas of the entire San Francisco Bay.

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In June, the San Francisco civil grand jury found the city, the Navy and the regulators overseeing the site had not adequately accounted for how rising groundwater could mix with toxics and expose residents to contamination. With the pace and scale of climate change, Bay Area climate scientists are increasingly worried the worst-case scenarios will become a reality, which could mean inundation of toxic sites from both above and below.

The report seemed to confirm what Bayview-Hunters Point residents have long been saying: that the city is not acting fast enough on the issue.

San Francisco’s supervisors said they agree with most of the jury’s findings and have expressed frustration with the city's lack of action on the issue. Walton would like to secure resources for an independent commission and a fast-tracked, third-party study of how groundwater rise could impact the Superfund site and the community. He would also like the city and all federal agencies involved to increase oversight of the cleanup to protect the health of residents.

“Groundwater and sea level rise has not been afforded the level of review and research necessary to protect residents of the shipyard, and understanding the additional science is important to keeping people safe,” Walton said during Thursday’s hearing. 

Tom Paulino, the mayor’s liaison to the Board of Supervisors, reiterated the mayor’s objections to the report when pressed at Thursday’s hearing. Breed has said she mostly disagrees with its findings and argues that the city is working with regulators, the Navy and other experts on a response to the climate threat that is “robust and appropriate.” A five-year Navy review of the Superfund site beginning in March 2023 could include updated climate science.  

Paulino said “additional elements of oversight” aren’t needed and would be “duplicative” of the existing structures in place. He noted the mayor’s team is willing to work collaboratively with the Board on the issue.

A man in a suit with a blue tie speaks at a rally in front of a microphone.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton and his fellow supervisors are challenging Mayor Breed and the Navy over Bayview-Hunters Point. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The jury recommended the city pay for an independent study, using multiple sea-level-rise scenarios, to determine how groundwater rise could affect toxic contamination in the soil at the Superfund site. Its report also recommended convening a permanent oversight committee to examine and question decisions about the cleanup, and communicate requests from residents and the city to the Navy and regulators. 

Sara Miles, a member of the jury, said she’s happy the Board of Supervisors is taking the report seriously.

“There's no way to erase or make good all the harm that has been done,” she said, noting that local doctors have found contamination in resident’s bodies. “We’re getting somewhere. President Walton wants to take some responsibility. I think that’s good.”

Bayview community members have also pressed city leaders to take action. Arieann Harrison, an organizer with the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, said that the board is taking a step in the right direction to protect residents, but that more work is needed.

“It's time to take it to big wigs,” she said. “We need our Nancy Pelosi’s to come and speak to the issue too. We need them to stop skipping past our community like we are invisible.”

The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation tested the urine of Harrison and other residents in the past three years and found high levels of contaminants such as uranium, although those tests were not independently confirmed by the health officials. “If I tested positive for that stuff, I'm pretty sure that a lot of other residents will test positive as well,” she said.

In recent decades the Navy has partially cleaned up the Superfund site and is preparing it for eventual development into a sweeping new neighborhood with mixed-use construction of businesses, research institutions and thousands of homes.

The board invited Navy officials but they declined saying in a letter that they disagree with the jury’s report and have accounted for both sea level rise and groundwater rise at the site. The Navy is “methodical in its cleanup approach, which is based on the best available data, science and engineering,” the letter said.

The letter stated that the next five-year review will “include an evaluation of the potential effects of sea level rise and associated groundwater elevation changes on the remedies currently in place.”

“While we appreciate the written responses, it is unfortunate that the regulatory bodies, as well as the Navy, cannot be here to present the data in person,” Supervisor Connie Chan said at the early September hearing.

At Thursday’s hearing, Angeles Herrera, assistant director for Region 9 of the EPA, said the agency will “set the expectation for the Navy” that it must examine the most up-to-date climate science of how rising water could move toxics around the site and into the community. 

Residents have long complained about the Navy’s lack of transparency on the cleanup. At Thursday’s hearing, Walton pressed Herrera on how far the EPA will go to push the Navy if it does not cooperate.  

“If we have to go to the Pentagon, we'll go to the Pentagon to bring up these issues, and to make sure that what is done at the site is protective of human health and the environment,” Herrera said. 

Walton said he is pushing for a 100% clean-up of the site before the land is allowed to be redeveloped into housing or businesses. 

In mid-September, at Chan’s behest, San Francisco’s deputy city attorney determined that the board has the power to subpoena the Navy officials, but advised against it, given the lengthy and time-consuming process. 

The board’s recommendations will be discussed at the Oct. 6 Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting.