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Radioactive Objects Found at San Francisco's Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Raise New Concerns

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'Stop killing us. Clean up the shipyard.'
Signs directed at the US Navy are posted on the gate of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Updated 1:30 p.m. Thursday

The U.S. Navy said it detected another piece of radioactive material — a chip of glass smaller than a dime — during recent routine testing at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.

The discovery, announced this week, is the latest in a steady drip of troubling findings at one of the city’s most ambitious redevelopment projects. It comes just months after the Navy reported finding a radioactive deck marker, the size of a silver dollar, that once guided ships at night.

The discoveries raise fresh questions about the city’s plans to build thousands of homes on one of the nation’s largest and most polluted Superfund sites amid ongoing cleanup efforts.

In response, community members with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and attorneys with UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic on Thursday announced their intention to sue the Navy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to properly clean up toxic and radioactive waste at the shipyard.

“The Navy owes it to us to clean up the toxic and radioactive nightmare of a mess it made over half a century ago. We will keep fighting for health and justice,” said Kamillah Ealom, a community organizer with Greenaction and longtime resident of the nearby Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The Navy said it found the “pea-sized” shard of glass last April, buried half a foot in the soil at Parcel B of the site, several hundred feet from the bay, and within half a mile of homes.

It sent the radioactive shard and surrounding soil to a laboratory for further analysis to determine specific contaminants but has not yet released those findings, Navy officials told the Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens Advisory Committee this week. Slides from the Navy’s briefing (PDF) indicate that it believes the community and on-site personnel are not at risk and “the relative dose of radiation from the object is low.”

Months later, in August, the Navy found the radioactive deck marker, still intact, a couple of inches below the ground in loose soil at nearby Parcel C.

The Navy did not comment for this story but confirmed the discovery of the two objects.

Arieann Harrison, founder and CEO of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, an environmental justice group serving the Bayview community, said the Navy’s most recent radioactive discoveries are hardly surprising and correlate with the results of independent testing done on nearby residents.

“The things that we have been complaining about and telling them about, about the high rates of cancer and also respiratory lung disease, is actually obvious,” said Harrison, a fifth-generation Bayview resident, after participating in a press conference on Thursday at the site. “So when is there going to be some form of humanity where they actually admit that there’s been some human harm? That it’s been harmful and impactful on the community in a negative way?”

A Black woman standing outside between several other people speaks into microphones.
Arieann Harrison (center), founder and CEO of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, speaks to reporters on Thursday at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, detailing a lawsuit she and other community activists plan to file against the Navy and US Environmental Protection Agency. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Retired nuclear policy expert Daniel Hirsch, the former director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy Program at UC Santa Cruz, said the most recent revelation — about the glass shard — is concerning because the Navy intends to eventually release the property to San Francisco and allow a developer to build over 10,000 homes there.

“You don’t just have a single piece of small glass that’s radioactive; this is part of a much larger piece of glass,” said Hirsch, who has provided technical assistance to the nearby community. “I think this is indicative of a reason for the community to be concerned.”

Hirsch added, “It’s very puzzling that measurements [on the glass shard] were made half a year ago, and they’ve only now announced that they had found radiation.”

Located next to a historically Black neighborhood where more than 35,000 people live, the Tetris-shaped 866-acre shipyard comprises concrete docking bays and abandoned buildings that jut out of San Francisco’s southeast shoreline.

In the middle of the last century, the Navy used the site to decontaminate ships after atomic bomb tests, a process that contaminated the soil with radionuclides, heavy metals and petroleum fuels, among other toxic compounds.

In 2021, the Navy found nearly two dozen samples at the site contaminated by Strontium-90, a radioactive isotope that can cause cancer. In September 2018, the agency recovered another radioactive deck marker, more than a decade after the federal government declared the area safe and free of radioactive waste.

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Environmental advocates believe these instances should have triggered a complete retesting of the site.

The EPA has alleged that Tetra Tech EC, a contractor hired by the Navy to conduct remediation activities at the site, falsified reports during the cleanup project.

In 2018, two former Tetra Tech supervisors pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges for falsifying records, and a federal judge sentenced them to prison. The company has denied wrongdoing and said the two employees were solely responsible for the fraudulent actions.

“One of our primary concerns is that the Navy is not living up to the agreement that they made with the regulators about how they’re going to handle the Tetra Tech radiological fraud,” said Steve Castleman, an attorney with UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic.

Castleman said his group plans to file its lawsuit in 60 days to compel the Navy and EPA to address radioactive and toxic contamination at the site, arguing that the cleanup standards adopted in 2006 were too lenient.

“If they’re going to build housing that’s going to be lived in for 100 years or more, we want to make sure that all of the contamination that they can remove is removed,” he said. “And that will require the Navy to tighten up their cleanup standards and to retest 100% of the work that Tetra Tech did because they did it fraudulently.”

Otherwise, the health and safety of construction workers on the site and its future residents will be “endangered significantly,” he said.

Castleman also noted the increased risks due to sea-level rise, brought on by human-caused climate change.

“First of all, the bay will rise, so that is dangerous to the surface of the shipyard. But also, the groundwater is going to rise with the bay,” he said. “And the danger is that the groundwater will inundate the landfill and then the contamination will spread with the groundwater. And that is a very dangerous thing.”

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