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The San Francisco Shipyard: Undoing the toxic legacy

Luiza Leite

Marie Harrison is very familiar with the health issues in Bayview Hunters Point.

"I've lived and raised children in Bayview for almost 50 something years, and honestly for as long as I can remember there have always been complaints. Because no one really understood the relationship between their illnesses and where they lived," Harrison says.

Through her work Harrison’s been trying to understand and explain. She’s a community organizer with Greenaction. The organization works for environmental justice in working class neighborhoods like Bayview Hunters Point.  After the Navy stopped repairing ships here in 1974, the location was declared a Superfund site by the Federal government.

"Asthma and cancer have been the largest [problems] starting from infancy and up to senior year," Harrison says. "Between 2003 and 2004, we started really seeing the numbers increase. People would be constantly talking about having these nose bleeds. It was really bad."

A lot of the residents blame the Navy for decades of environmental abuse as they repaired warships using highly toxic chemicals. They feel that the reason behind their illnesses is the toxic ground and the air. But Melanie Kito, the Navy’s base environmental coordinator here, says that’s not causing the illnesses in the neighborhood, because people in the community are not directly exposed.

Touring the shipyard with the Navy

Kito and I take a driving tour of the contaminated areas. She tells me that the Navy’s work is a long process beginning with record searches.

"What the Navy does is we have to look at every single historical document, to see what exactly happened here," she says.

And to find those people who worked here. If they’re still around.

"When you look all the logs, and then we start interviewing people even in the neighborhood, or people that lived and worked in the shipyard," she says, "to find out if they know of anything, of where we might find contamination at."

The Navy started the process in 1991, 17 years after the shipyard closed down.

Most of what they're cleaning up, she says, is radium paint. "That’s paint that glows in the dark," she says. Decontamination is often done by vapor extractor.

On a larger scale, in many cases, the Navy caps cleaned parcels to seal them. In other cases, different experimental methods are employed depending on the toxicity involved.

"When we figure out what is the best technology, we write a report, it goes to the regulators, they say, 'Yes it’s good,' or, 'No, it’s not.' If it’s not, then we redo it, and redo it until it’s right," she says.

The regulators include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Board, and the Department of Toxics Substances Control. They all operate independently, checking up on the Navy’s work.

The role of watchdogs

"They put monitors though our insistence for the community," says Greenaction's Marie Harrison, who does not think the Navy is doing a good job with the cleanup. "Unfortunately, they tried to rush through it without using the proper measures to protect the community."

Greenaction is just one organization that has been watching the cleanup closely. Another is Arc Ecology. Executive director Saul Bloom is not quite as critical as Harrison about the Navy’s work. The government, he points out, has spent more than 800 million dollars in the cleanup so far. By the project’s conclusion, which is projected for 2021 the price tag will top a billion.

"It’s a heavily contaminated shipyard. There was radiological contamination out there. There still is radiological contamination out there, but it’s not an ant suspended in amber," he says. "We’ve had two decades of ongoing cleanup, and as a consequence the shipyard’s impact on the on the health of the Bayview neighborhood should have reduced significantly over that time. And yet we are finding that these complaints still continue and the situation hasn’t changed."

Bloom says this indicates that other sources of contamination are to blame for the high levels of asthma and cancer in the neighborhood. He thinks it's because of the nature of the neighborhood itself.

"We have this large 200 acre industrial, light industrial facility district in the middle of the neighborhood," he says. "It mostly consists of un- or under-regulated businesses."

And that’s the bigger picture of this massive redevelopment project. Bayview Hunters Point is a mixed use community,with other environmental concerns besides the shipyard. The Navy is expected to complete its cleanup in 2021, but many unanswered questions will remain for the residents of the 12,000 new homes and their neighbors in this developing part of San Francisco.

This is the fourth story in a four part series exploring redevelopment in Bayview Hunter's Point.