The Elusive Quest for Environmental Justice at Hunters Point

The failed cleanup of a Navy site in San Francisco is a worrisome test of federal policies.

In the long-running battle for environmental justice, the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco is a crucial beachhead. The Navy and EPA have been trying to clean up the radioactive site for decades, so that it can be handed over to the city for lucrative real estate development by the shipyard’s master developer, Lennar Corp. But a series of remediation scandals and controversies have plagued the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which has been called “a textbook case of environmental injustice.” If the Navy and EPA can get away with a subpar cleanup at such a hazardous site, in one of the nation’s most historically progressive cities, environmental justice advocates fear a cascade of similar losses around the country.

The Navy bought the shipyard on the edge of the San Francisco Bay just 11 days after Pearl Harbor and employed 18,000 people there toward the end of World War II, one-third of whom were African American. Components of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, were transported across the Pacific from Hunters Point by the USS Indianapolis. The post-war shipyard became home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory for the study and decontamination of ships used in the nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. Top-secret radiological defense and fallout research, waste disposal, and repair of heavily radiated ships coming back from Bikini Atoll left the shipyard with extensive toxic contamination, but low on documentation of what was disposed of where. The shipyard was declared an EPA Superfund site in 1989, due to contamination from asbestos, as well as PCBs and radioactive materials.

​Hunters Point, a naval shipyard, is at the center of a major environmental justice battle. Photo by Dale Cruse/Flickr.

Racist housing policies led many African Americans to settle in the Bayview-Hunters Point area in the years following the war, and the area still has the city’s largest African American population. Twenty-seven percent of the neighborhood’s 35,000-plus residents currently live within a quarter mile of contamination risk, according to a new San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, “Buried Problems and a Buried Process.”

The cleanup at the EPA Superfund site devolved into scandal in 2012, when investigators discovered that workers from Navy contractor Tetra Tech EC had falsified data regarding soil sample surveys in the radiological remediation work being performed. The public, however, first learned about it via an NBC News report in 2014. The massive eco-fraud scandal deepened further when Navy officials found nearly 50 percent of the company’s data may have been falsified, followed by an EPA finding that the extent of the potential fraud was much worse. More than $250 million in taxpayer dollars was wasted. Two former Tetra Tech EC supervisors were convicted and sentenced to eight months in federal prison in 2018.

Parent company Tetra Tech Inc. contend that the duo were “rogue employees” purportedly acting on their own. Tetra Tech points to an NRC investigation which concluded that “the willful misconduct” was conducted by the two supervisors “and not Tetra Tech management.” But attorney David Anton – who is representing several Tetra Tech EC whistleblowers in false claims suits against the company – says the NRC investigation didn’t dig very deep.

“The names next to these faked soil samples were about a dozen workers, not two. The NRC investigation report does not show any analysis of the faked soil samples. If the NRC had conducted a review of the soil samples, as the Navy experts did in 2016 and 2017, the NRC in 2014 would have seen that there were far too many individuals submitting fake soil samples for this to be the work of just two rogue individuals,” Anton notes.

The Department of Justice joined ongoing false claims lawsuits against Tetra Tech EC later that year (since consolidated into one complaint in 2020 at the judge’s request), casting further suspicion on the Navy contractor.

Curiously, another Tetra Tech subsidiary had been caught up in similar radiological sampling/testing controversies at a separate EPA Superfund site in Ohio back in the early 1990s, as the San Francisco Bay View reported on in 2020.

PRC Environmental Management, an EPA contractor that Tetra Tech acquired in 1995, was found to have made numerous mistakes in radiological sampling/testing procedures on work done at the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) in Uniontown, Ohio between 1990 to 93. The EPA’s decision to continue contracting with PRC, which was later renamed Tetra Tech EM, for IEL cleanup related work — including taking groundwater samples at the site in 1998 as well as preparing a community involvement plan for the site in 2001 — was challenged by watchdog groups.

“The EPA’s continued use of the firm PRC/Tetra Tech, which has compromised earlier rounds of testing, goes against all logic and common sense,” the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that investigates abuse of power by the federal government, had lamented at the time. “The question then needs to be asked as to why the EPA is turning to PRC once again to conduct critical field tests that may be used in court to justify an inadequate cleanup plan?”

The ongoing controversy surrounding Hunters Point recently flared up again this fall, when the EPA made it known that it doesn’t intend to hold the Navy responsible for cleaning up the site to unrestricted residential use standards. Failure to do so would disregard Proposition P, a measure passed overwhelmingly by San Francisco voters in 2000 (and adopted by the city’s board of supervisors in 2001), which urged that the site be cleaned up to the agency’s most protective standards for safe residential use without restrictions.

“On one hand, EPA talks about the importance of community input, but on the other hand says it is free to ignore Prop P, one of the strongest expressions of community input imaginable,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)’s Pacific Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. His concern was echoed by other watchdogs and activists in the Bay Area.

“Rather than assure that the site is cleaned up to its most protective standards, the EPA intends to allow the use of far weaker limits and let the Navy walk away from much of the pollution at the site, relying on unenforceable land-use restrictions and covering up rather than cleaning up the radioactivity and toxic chemicals,” Daniel Hirsch, an environmental policy analyst, wrote for the San Francisco Examiner. This amounts to “regulatory capture,” which happens when an agency is influenced to act in favor of the entities it’s supposed to be regulating. Hirsch has previously outlined this and much more in four comprehensive reports on Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNS) for the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an advocacy group for which he is president.

Hirsch and Ruch were part of a local stakeholder group that met with EPA upper management in 2021 to discuss community recommendations for moving forward with the cleanup at Hunters Point. In an email memo to the group that PEER published in October, the EPA said they had convened an interagency working group with the Navy “to identify and resolve issues affecting remediation activities.” The working group was said to include “senior leadership from EPA headquarters and Region 9, the Navy, and California state regulators.”

When queried as to the identities of the working group personnel, an EPA spokesperson would only say that it includes “senior managers from EPA Region 9, EPA Headquarters, the Navy, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, the California Department of Public Health, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.”

These are the same agencies that Hirsch says have proven untrustworthy at Hunters Point, based on their prior actions and failures to protect public health at the site. The EPA seems to be taking a page from Uncle Sam’s playbook portrayed in a scene at the end of Steven Spielberg’s classic film Raiders of the Lost Ark, when archeologist Indiana Jones meets with Army Intelligence officials to discuss what’s going to happen with the Ark of the Covenant. “We have top men working on it right now,” one of them says assuredly. “Who?” Indy asks skeptically. “Top men!” comes the response.

The EPA’s vague assurances only lead to more questions. In the same EPA email to stakeholders, the agency noted that “the Navy has also hired an independent contractor to provide third-party quality assurance review.” According to Derek Robinson, the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Coordinator & Environmental Program Manager, the independent contractor is Battelle, an Ohio-based firm that happens to be a longtime partner to the Navy and US Department of Energy.

A prior review at Hunters Point from Battelle turned out to be not so independent after all. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the Navy hired Battelle in 2010 to conduct a cost-cutting study to optimize the radiological remediation work being done by Tetra Tech. Battelle in turn hired the Argonne National Laboratory – which then relied on data that was in part provided by Tetra Tech and vetted by the Navy – to produce a report that offered contrived changes to cleanup rules to save money for the Navy. Now the Navy and EPA are again asking the citizens of San Francisco to trust Battelle as an “independent” provider for “third-party quality assurance review” of radiological rework by the Navy at Hunters Point.

Asked how the Navy can still consider Battelle to be an independent entity, Robinson could only reiterate the Navy’s previous position: “Battelle was hired to provide additional oversight for radiological remediation activities at Hunters Point. The Navy, federal agencies, and state agencies also provide oversight for work being performed to ensure the public is protected and contamination is properly addressed.”

Greenaction Executive Director Bradley Angel leads a San Francisco-based non-profit that has been a longtime community watchdog at Hunters Point. He had a different take on the Battelle hire. “The Navy’s use of Battelle and other federal contractors tied to the Navy and polluters is the opposite of independent oversight,” Angel said by email. “The plans by the Navy and EPA to leave large amounts of radioactive and toxic waste buried and capped at the shipyard are blatant environmental racism, especially as sea levels and groundwater are rising and will eventually flood and spread the contamination further into the community.”

Racist housing policies led many African Americans to settle in the Bayview-Hunters Point area, which now has the city’s largest African American population. George Washington Carver Elementary School dancers photo by Ariel Dovas/Flickr.

Twenty-seven percent of the Bayview neighborhood’s 35,000-plus residents currently live within a quarter mile of contamination risk. A neighborhood view photo by Christoper/Flickr.

A new crusade for environmental justice at the EPA?

The Biden administration has publicly committed to prioritizing environmental justice at the EPA; that’s a breath of fresh air after Donald Trump defanged the agency by putting big polluters in charge. The EPA even recently opened a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights with much fanfare. But stakeholders in the Bayview-Hunters Point area have a hard time taking the EPA’s promises at face value knowing that the agency won’t require a full cleanup from the Navy at the shipyard.

“On paper, our community has so much clout, federally,” J. Michelle Pierce, executive director of the Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates (BVHPCA), says. “But realistically, we continue to be gaslighted on this.” Pierce is a third generation Hunters Point activist whose grandparents met while working at the shipyard during World War II, and was another of the local stakeholders in the group that met with EPA management last year. Pierce feels the EPA’s recent decision on the Hunters Point cleanup makes a mockery of the Biden administration’s alleged commitment to environmental justice. “This [remediation] process is confusing to people, because nobody wants to believe how screwed up the process is, or that any of the government agencies involved would be willing to proceed after everything we know and continue to learn,” Pierce says.

The local stakeholder group that met with EPA management last year also included Dr. Robert M. Gould, president of San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility and a professor in the program of Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. In a statement at a recent hearing held by San Francisco’s board of supervisors, Gould expressed outrage at “the abdication of EPA’s public duty” in their decision to let the Navy off the hook at Hunters Point.

“Minimizing threats of environmental contamination to benefit the profits of developers is an insult to all who care about health and justice at Hunters Point, and emblematic of the environmental racism the community has endured since the Navy brought radioactive ships there 70 years ago,” Gould reiterated by email.

The EPA decision to allow a limited cleanup also sets up a political conflict. Mayor London Breed has gone on record in support of the Navy’s cleanup plans as “robust and appropriate,” while Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton has asserted that the board will have a say on whether or not the city will accept land transfers from the Navy.

“I don’t remember hearing the Mayor say they would accept the land from the Navy if it was not 100 percent clean, but most certainly I would not let that happen,” Walton said in an email. How serious Walton is about that sentiment and how far the Board of Supervisors is willing to go in a potential dispute over authority on the issue with the mayor and the city’s Office of Community Infrastructure and Investment remains to be seen.

Another issue of contention between the board and the mayor is the civil grand jury’s recommendation that the city should hire expert scientists to examine how climate change and rising sea levels could spread the shipyard’s contamination into the community. The grand jury explicitly stated it had found that neither the city nor the Navy and its regulators had taken these risks into account (prompting the Navy to come back and claim that it has).

Environmental activists across the nation meanwhile will continue to keep a watchful eye on Hunters Point. If the Navy can get away with a substandard cleanup at a heavily contaminated site in San Francisco, imagine what it could do in less affluent, less well-organized parts of the country.

Note: This article was updated on January 18, 2023 to address a few factual and timeline details contested by Tetra Tech. The general content of the story remains unchanged.

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