'Poorly Prepared': SF Civil Grand Jury Slams City for Not Protecting Residents From Toxic Contamination

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A Black woman with long black braids is wearing a purple shirt that reads 'Can we Live.' People are standing on the cement steps of San Francisco City Hall holding signs about environmental justice for the neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point.
Arieann Harrison prepares to speak during a rally at San Francisco City Hall in response to the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report on the contamination of the Hunters Point shipyard. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Standing atop the Polk Street steps of San Francisco City Hall, Arieann Harrison chanted into a megaphone alongside other Bayview-Hunters Point residents, begging city officials to value their lives.

“When I say, ‘Can we,’ you say, ‘Live,’” Harrison called out. “Can we!”

“Live!” the crowd shouted back.

The rally earlier this month followed a report from the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury that confirmed what Bayview-Hunters Point residents have been saying: The city is not acting on — is barely even thinking about — how sea level rise could surface legacy toxic contamination, spreading it in neighborhoods near the World War II-era naval shipyard.

“I want to invite our mayor — who we love — to show us that she loves us back,” said Harrison. As the founder of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, she fights for people’s health in this part of San Francisco.

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The grand jury report said in blunt and emphatic language that neither the city, nor the Navy, nor any agency involved in Hunters Point has accounted for the severe risk that human-caused climate change poses to the community.

The jury “found that rising groundwater in the Shipyard could interact in dangerous ways with future infrastructure, and with hazardous toxins the Navy plans to leave buried in the soil. We wanted to know if this new science and these risks had been taken into account by the City, by OCII [the San Francisco Office of Community Infrastructure and Investment], or by the Navy and its regulators. We found that they had not.”

Jurors wrote that the city is “poorly prepared” to protect the health and safety of Bayview-Hunters Point residents, and “cannot cut corners in an era of climate change.”

For Harrison and others who live in the neighborhood around the shipyard, the report validated their message to city officials: that the threats from toxic contamination and climate change are real and demand lasting solutions.

“We want to secure the future for us as residents and for our kids,” said Harrison. “I am a mother. I am a grandmother. And I want them to not live through a legacy of toxicity. I don't want them to worry about all the things they have to worry about in our community.”

The toxic legacy

A photo illustration with torn up pieces of white and grey pieces of paper. Each has an excerpt from a report from the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury.
Portions of the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report 'Buried Problems and a Buried Process: The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in a Time of Climate Change.' (Sarah Khalida Mohamed/KQED)

The bayshore edge of Bayview-Hunters Point is one of the most polluted areas of the entire San Francisco shoreline. The former Navy shipyard, located on the city’s southeast shoreline, is an 866-acre federal Superfund site, a location the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated as highly contaminated with hazardous waste.

In the middle of the last century, the Navy decontaminated ships there after atomic bomb tests and established the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. Research and other activities contaminated the soil with radionuclides, heavy metals, and petroleum fuels, among other toxic compounds.

The Superfund site has been partially cleaned up. With the oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy is continuing the cleanup, preparing it for the eventual development of a sweeping new neighborhood with mixed-use construction of businesses, research institutions and thousands of homes.

Scientists say the problem is that the cleanup didn't prepare the site for the worst of rising tides. The Navy’s most recent report on the cleanup describes how, at many sites, toxic contamination that’s buried in the soil is held in place with a cap — often made of concrete, clay or strong plastic-like materials. The problem: Rising sea levels both flood on top of the land and press inward under the surface, pushing up the groundwater underneath this buried contamination.

UC Berkeley scientist Rachel Morello-Frosch says caps over toxic contamination may not hold as the bay presses groundwater upward.

“If you start having groundwater encroachment, those caps of legacy sites can be breached,” she noted. “So it can come up, and it can move to different areas.”

As groundwater rises, the buried pollution can spread throughout the community, exposing people and the bay to contaminants.

An 'impenetrable system'

A sliver of greenish blue baywater in the foreground. Giant silver metal cranes sit upon a rock levee. Behind the cranes is an apartment laden hill. The mostly white apartments appear to be multiple stories.
Apartment buildings in Hunters Point are seen through gantry cranes from San Francisco Bay on March 8, 2022. (Beth LeBerge/KQED)

The grand jury report is an indictment of the city and the regulatory agencies overseeing what happens at the Hunters Point Superfund site — that is, the Navy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The report says lack of attention, inaccessible documents, technical language and poor communication among the agencies involved in cleanup at the Superfund site leave residents of Bayview-Hunters Point and the city unacceptably vulnerable to contamination.

The San Francisco Civil Grand Jury is a panel of 19 citizens who don’t work in government. They serve for a year to investigate and issue reports on significant local government actions or, as they make clear in this case, government lack of action.

“The Jury believes that the essence of the City’s disconnect from the Shipyard cleanup lies in the lack of attention paid to it by leaders throughout the City,” the jurors wrote. “Aside from some glimmers of awareness at regulatory agencies, groundwater rise has not yet been meaningfully considered in the cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard.”

Furthermore, the jurors wrote that city leaders have not paid much attention to the cleanup itself.

“Despite the enormous stakes of the process governing the Shipyard cleanup,” the report says, “there is little understanding of the process throughout the City, or even that the City can influence this process.”

To come to their conclusions, the members of the grand jury read reams and reams of documents, some of which they said were “impenetrable.”

The jurors wrote that because reports on the cleanup are “arcane and very difficult to understand,” it was hard for them to determine what work the Navy had completed. As a result, they wrote, “the cleanup governance process is inaccessible, even invisible” to city leaders or citizens.

“Hidden inside this impenetrable system, [the agencies in charge of the cleanup] are engaging with important questions that concern anyone who might someday live in the Shipyard,” the jurors wrote. “They should certainly concern the leaders of San Francisco.”

The grand jury report offers seven recommendations for San Francisco leaders.  Among them:

  • Fund an independent study about how groundwater rise could affect toxic contamination in the soil at the Superfund site, under multiple sea level rise scenarios.
  • Create a permanent Hunters Point Shipyard Cleanup Oversight Committee to examine and question decisions about the cleanup, and communicate requests to the Navy and oversight agencies.
  • For that committee, by March 1, 2023, prepare a report on its recommendations based on the groundwater study and deliver that report to the Board of Supervisors, the mayor and the Department of Public Health.

“This is a solvable problem,” the jurors wrote. "And there is still hope that groundwater rise will be addressed in the Shipyard before it is too late.”

City officials respond

Two maps of the San Francisco neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point side by side. One shows where current groundwater is at and the other shows where groundwater will move to with four feet of sea level rise. The darker the color the closer to the surface the groudnwater is.
San Francisco officials say they are studying where groundwater rise could happen across the city. But the civil grand jury found they aren't examining how that rise could affect toxic contamination in Bayview-Hunters Point. (City and County of San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report 'Buried Problems and a Buried Process: The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in a Time of Climate Change')

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton denied requests for an interview for this story. City staff emailed a statement that said officials welcome the report and will carefully consider the recommendations.

The email pointed to a study the city is working on in collaboration with scientists from Pathways Climate Institute and the San Francisco Estuary Institute. That study will evaluate how sea level rise will affect flooding and groundwater. A preliminary summary of the study says that sea level rise can push up groundwater as far as three miles inland.

The city also noted it intends to conduct a study analyzing “known contaminated sites and the potential for rising groundwater to mobilize contaminants.” But the city hasn’t found funding for that study.

Meanwhile, the grand jury report says the study underway won’t be adequate to guide critical decisions about protecting residents in Bayview-Hunters Point. "The City urgently needs better, more detailed predictions of how groundwater will react to sea level rise at this site," they wrote.

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The jurors got a preview of the study; the example foreshadows 4 feet of sea level rise — less than half of the end-of-the-century, worst-case scenario laid out in the state’s sea level rise guidance.