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SF Supervisors Unhappy With City's Lack of Action to Protect Bayview-Hunters Point Residents From Toxic Sea Level Rise

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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 Grand Jury Report 'Buried Problems and a Buried Process: The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in a Time of Climate Change.' (Sarah Khalida Mohamad/KQED)

A committee of San Francisco supervisors Thursday challenged Mayor London Breed’s assertion that the city understands the risk of climate change-related flooding in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

Members of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee reviewed a June report from the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury that confirmed what Bayview-Hunters Point residents have been saying: The city is not acting fast enough on how sea level rise could surface legacy toxic contamination and spread it in neighborhoods near the Cold War-era naval shipyard.

The former Navy shipyard, located on the city’s southeast shoreline, is an 866-acre federal Superfund site, meaning it’s a location the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated as highly contaminated with hazardous waste. Along this bayshore edge of Bayview-Hunters Point, where radioactive contamination remains buried in the soil, lies one of the most polluted areas of the entire San Francisco Bay shoreline.

Committee members Dean Preston and Connie Chan and Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton all but chastised Mayor Breed, who did not attend the meeting, for not supporting the jury’s findings. In August, the mayor issued a letter saying she disagrees partially or wholly with the findings.

“Seven recommendations from the Civil Grand Jury. Seven responses from the mayor’s office that the city will not implement them,” Preston said. “I don’t think that’s a good place to be.”

He said that doesn’t mean the city has to agree to all of the jury’s recommendations, but said the issue is serious, and that the mayor’s response is “unusual” and “hopefully that can be revisited.”

The Civil Grand Jury found the city, the U.S. Navy and the regulators overseeing the Hunters Point Superfund site have not adequately accounted for how rising groundwater could mix with toxics and expose residents to it.

Jurors recommended the city pay for an independent study about how groundwater rise could affect toxic contamination in the soil at the Superfund site, using multiple sea level rise scenarios. Their report also recommended convening a permanent Hunters Point Shipyard Cleanup Oversight Committee to examine and question decisions about the cleanup, and communicate requests from residents and the city to the Navy and oversight agencies.

Sara Miles, a member of the civil grand jury, told the supervisors there are many minds across city departments thinking about groundwater rise as a result of climate change; it’s just that “Hunters Point is artificially excluded from their oversight or their participation in the process.”

She said the city needs additional staff across all departments if it intends to focus on how groundwater rise could affect Bayview-Hunters Point or other neighborhoods.

“We’re concerned that they may miss other similar problems because there aren’t enough of them, and they don’t have a range of expertise,” she said.

The committee invited all the regulatory agencies overseeing the Superfund site —  the Navy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board — to the meeting, but none of their representatives attended.

“The U.S. Navy declined to show up today,” Walton said. “They sent a letter rather than show up for the people of this city.”

Susan Philip, health officer for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, did show up. And the supervisors grilled her with questions. Does she feel the department has the opportunity to increase staffing to monitor groundwater rise? How involved is her department in the Navy’s process? What actions had her department taken to analyze concerns around sea level rise prior to the jury’s report?

Philip told the supervisors the agency has a dedicated staff person, but with the scale of the issue, Walton told her more are needed.

“I personally believe that the least the department can do is probably put some resources together to have more eyes on the monitoring of additional science,” he said.

Apartment buildings in the Bayview sit behind the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco on March 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When asked how much control Philip’s department has over the cleanup, she responded by saying the agency does not have regulatory power over the shipyard but will offer recommendations and comments when allowed, like during the five-year review of the Navy cleanup in the spring of 2023.

Responding to the Civil Grand Jury’s message that public information about the toxic sites is difficult to find and unintelligible, Phillip said that, with the upcoming five-year review by the Navy, her goal is “make it as understandable as possible” for the public.

Walton said he is pushing for a 100% clean-up of the site and will ensure that takes place before the land can be redeveloped into housing or businesses.

Community members pleaded with the supervisors to take action. Arieann Harrison with the Marie Harrison Community Foundation said independent testing has found that residents, including herself, already have high levels of contaminants such as uranium in their bodies.

“If I tested positive for that stuff, I’m pretty sure that a lot of other residents will test positive as well,” she said.

Dr. Marcy Adelman, a psychologist and a resident of District 10, asked the board to develop recommendations that will support community health.

“We’re on a precipice here, and if we don’t act, it will be too late,” she said. “The city has to get in the game.”

In a letter to the committee, the Navy says it disagrees with the jury report and has accounted for both sea level rise and groundwater rise. Officials wrote the Navy is “methodical in its cleanup approach, which is based on the best available data, science and engineering.” Officials also wrote 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.”

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Supervisor Connie Chan asked the deputy city attorney to explore whether the supervisors can subpoena the parties if the Navy and other regulatory agencies decide not to attend future meetings.

“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,” she said.

The supervisors will release recommendations for the city at a Sept. 29 meeting.

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 eventual development into a sweeping new neighborhood with mixed-use construction of businesses, research institutions and thousands of homes.

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