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US Navy Acknowledges Rising Toxic Groundwater Threat at SF Superfund Site

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A view of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard from the Lennar at the Shipyard housing development on Feb. 25, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The U.S. Navy, for the first time, has acknowledged what Bay Area climate scientists and residents have asked the agency to look into for years: that in just over a decade, potentially toxic groundwater could surface at a San Francisco Superfund site partly because of human-caused climate change.

Every five years, the agency reviews the cleanup of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard next to the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. The agency studied how climate effects — sea-level rise, groundwater rise and storm surge — could impact the cleanup of one of the nation’s largest and most complicated Superfund sites. The Navy finished the review in November and released it to the public in late January. The details of the climate review were buried deep in a 566-page document, and KQED is reporting on them for the first time.

The Navy found that in 2035, contaminated groundwater from heavy metals and “low-level radiological objects” — steeping in the water like a tea bag — could surface in an area of the site called “Parcel D-1,” which the Navy used for ship repair, maintenance and radiological research. The Navy capped this area with asphalt to keep any remaining pollution underground.

The Navy’s assessment said heavy metals in permanent groundwater could surface in five other places by 2065.

“The five-year review based on sea-level rise confirms some of our collective concerns in Bayview-Hunters Point,” said Arieann Harrison, founder and CEO of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, an environmental justice group serving the Bayview community.

“It’s going to take more work to reach the goal of creating a safe environment for us all,” she added in an email.

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The Navy also found that a 100-year storm surge in 2035 could cause flooding in some areas. By 2065, “a 100-year storm surge would impact portions of all parcels.”

The report raises fresh questions about the city’s plans to build thousands of homes on what is an exceedingly complex and ongoing cleanup effort. When finished, the 693-acre Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard project — which the Superfund site is part of — could have more than 10,000 housing units. The development would include two new waterfront neighborhoods with housing, retail, and over 340 acres of parks and open space.

Two side by side aerial maps of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. A dark blue shaded areas show where flooding could occur from storms in 2035 and 2065.
In a changing climate, the blue-shaded areas depict how a 100-year storm event could temporarily flood a portion of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard by 2035 and 2065. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Bay Area climate scientists, like UC Berkeley’s Kristina Hill, have sounded the alarm for years that anthropogenic climate change causing rising seas will push up groundwater levels and mix with contaminants with the possibility of coming in contact with people and the environment.

Nearly two years ago, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury issued a report alerting the public to the fact that groundwater rise — a result of seas rising in response to global emissions melting ice caps and expanding oceans — could significantly impact the site in the coming decades.

“We feel vindicated that the Navy thinks this is a serious threat that needs to be looked at and also that they understand that it’s imminent,” said Sara Miles, a member of the grand jury behind the report. “This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed before there’s a land transfer, not to mention any more housing being built in those areas.”

Michael Pound, a base realignment and closure environmental coordinator with the Navy, defended the agency’s work to prepare the site for one of San Francisco’s most ambitious development projects in a generation. He said the Navy is taking a proactive approach to how rising seas could affect the Superfund site.

“The Navy has not only considered climate change at Hunters Point for many years, but it has already developed some infrastructure at the Shipyard to prepare for future sea-level rise,” he said in a statement.

The Navy has armored and extended part of the site with a seawall and a landfill cap to protect against a 100-year storm and three feet of sea-level rise. Based on the two sea-level rise projections, the Navy, working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory agencies, will develop timelines for the Navy’s ongoing site-specific evaluations.

The EPA oversees the cleanup of Superfund sites and is studying the Navy’s latest review filing, along with California environmental agencies, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Pound said it could be finalized by this summer.

San Francisco leaders respond

Mayor London Breed did not agree with some of the Civil Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations from 2022. In a statement, her office said the city is working with the Navy “to proactively ensure that all the actors responsible for the clean-up process are using remediation best practices so that the community’s health is, and remains, protected.”

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton represents the Hunters Point area. His office declined an interview for this story.

Two side by side aerial maps of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Dark blue circles are randomly spread out across the land showcasing where groundwater could be within three feet of the surface in 2035 and 2065.
In a changing climate, the dark blue circles show where groundwater could rise to within 3 feet of the surface at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard by 2035 and 2065. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

The San Francisco Department of Public Health wrote that the agency is conducting an in-depth analysis of the five-year review, including the section on climate impacts.

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 a radioactive deck marker, more than a decade after the federal government declared the area safe and free of radioactive waste.

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

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.

‘The whole area could be flooded’

Residents, environmental advocates and climate scientists applaud the Navy for studying how climate change could alter the site. However, they said environmental agencies should require the Navy to conduct a more thorough cleanup before any developer builds housing on the old shipyard.

Jeff Weitzel was on the civil grand jury that advised the city to look further into how groundwater rise will likely surface contamination at the shipyard. He said he was surprised the Navy looked at time horizons so near into the future and wished the agency would have considered a century ahead because homes built on the site would sit vulnerable for decades.

Two side by side aerial maps of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Dark blue circles are randomly spread out across the land showcasing where groundwater could emerge above the land surface in 2035 and 2065.
In a changing climate, the circled light blue areas depict where groundwater could emerge above ground at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard by 2035 and 2065. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

“If they look 100 years in the future, it might look two to four times as alarming,” he said.

Weitzel also notes that the Navy’s study looks separately at flooding from storms, groundwater, and rising sea levels. He said a composite view is needed to understand actual vulnerability clearly.

“The whole area could be flooded; that’s what those maps are showing,” he said. “If we’re talking about building an entire community in that area, that has to be taken into account. There are all these chemicals under this soil, and we don’t know how they might be sneaking out. It’s very alarming.”

For Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, who tests the bodies of Bayview-Hunters Point residents to determine if they’ve been exposed to contamination through her Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation, the Navy’s findings are “devastating.” She said the city should question whether it is a good idea to build on the site with contamination still in the soil.

“The Navy did go the extra mile in projecting climate change, and I think that they offered a more sensitive and respectful analysis of the protectiveness of the most dangerously contaminated parcels,” she said. “The bottom line is that the Navy is telling you the shipyard, in its current state, is not fully protective of human health and the environment.”

Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai displays a map of Bayview Hunters Point at her office in Bayview, San Francisco, on Feb. 25, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Porter Sumchai has screened more than 150 residents and found elevated levels of contaminants like uranium, plutonium and radioactive potassium — some of which she notes can cause cancer in people when exposed to them over a period of time. Her next step is to create a toxic registry of the around 35,000 people who live within a one-mile perimeter of the Superfund site.

“Most of the clustering we are seeing is within the half-mile perimeter of the base,” she said. “The longer people have lived close to the base, the more significant their body burdens are.”

‘Water brings it all together’

Hill has spent much of the past decade deciphering how human-caused climate change will push up groundwater and come in contact with contamination in soil. Her findings showcase as many as 5,000 toxic sites in the Bay Area alone are at risk of inundation.

In reading the Navy’s review, the Institute for Urban and Regional Development director at UC Berkeley commends the agency for “looking at the issue at all” but said its methods were not granular enough. She said the Navy’s analysis is missing an understanding of how water moves.

More on Climate Change

The Navy assumed that a certain level of sea-level rise would push up groundwater unilaterally “as if it’s carved out of wood or ice” to see where it touches land or comes within three feet of the surface.

“I’m concerned that there might be places where contaminants could flow off their site towards other parcels and certainly towards the bay,” Hill said.

Water moves differently based on topography, and because much of the soil on site is fill material, she said it is hard to know how the water will move. She suggests the Navy study each part of the site to decipher how surface water and groundwater will shift as seas rise and storms become more intense.

“Water brings it all together,” she said. “I would definitely hesitate about whether this land is ready for housing because they haven’t done a reasonably comprehensive study considering how groundwater moves.”

The Navy said it plans to evaluate how contaminants could move in water using “more sophisticated groundwater modeling.”

The agency will also look at the latest sea-level rise guidance from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The first study would prioritize the 2035 scenario where “groundwater is first projected to rise above the current land surface.”

But Hill said the way to get around the troubles with contaminated groundwater is simple: remove all the contaminated soil or “treat them on-site with a fast enough process that it’ll be clean by the time the ocean gets there, or the groundwater gets up to it.”

“This isn’t an unsolvable problem where there’s already housing built,” she said.” So, why not clean it up? It takes one family to suffer impacts, and everyone will regret not doing a better study.”

The Navy plans to discuss the climate portion of the review at the Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens Advisory Committee meeting on March 25 and is holding a community workshop on April 22. The last day for public comment on the Navy’s review is March 31.

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