Navy Broke Promise to Clean Up Contamination, Covering It Up Instead
Rather than cleaning up the contamination at the troubled Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, the Navy is leaving much of it in place and merely covering it with a thin layer of soil or asphalt, according to a new report by a team led by Daniel Hirsch, retired Director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz. Such covers would be ineffective at protecting the public from the contamination, as shown in companion papers by Dr. William Bianchi, a soil physicist and retired Director of a US Dept. of Agriculture research station, and Dr. Howard Wilshire, a retired US Geological Survey Senior Geologist.
Additionally, the covers will have to be torn up and the contaminated soil beneath them excavated for the planned Hunters Point development to occur, rendering the covers useless and potentially exposing the public to radioactive and chemical contamination.
The key findings of the main report, FROM CLEANUP TO COVERUP: How the Navy Quietly Abandoned Commitments to Clean Up Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and is Instead Covering Up Much of the Contamination, are:
- The Navy originally promised that it would clean up the contamination at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Superfund site to standards safe enough for people to live on without the need for land use restrictions or physical barriers such as covers.
- In 2000, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition P supporting a full cleanup to the most protective standards, those for unrestricted residential release, with no covers or land use restrictions.
- The following year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted Prop P as official City Policy and called on all City agencies to carry it out.
- As recently as this year, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has repeatedly asserted that the site is being returned to its natural state, i.e., that all contamination is in fact being removed.
- HOWEVER, what has never been made clear to the public is that the Navy long ago switched from cleaning up to merely covering up much of the contamination. Furthermore, the City, despite the official City Policy and what it has told the public, has cooperated with the change.
- The Navy shifted from cleanup to coverup of much of the contamination because it found that contamination was far more widespread and would be more expensive to remove than it had initially assumed.
- The Navy has asserted that the covers would be “long-lasting” and “kept in place after cleanup to limit exposure to any left-over contaminants.” To this end, the Navy is relying on “institutional controls,” restrictions that supposedly would prohibit any “land disturbing activity,” which includes “excavation of soil” and “construction of roads, utilities, facilities, structures, and appurtenances of any kind.”
- However, these are precisely the activities necessary for the redevelopment project to go forward. The institutional controls are therefore fictions: the covers would have to be destroyed and the contaminated soil beneath them excavated, creating potential exposure to the public.
The paper by Dr. Bianchi (Plant Uptake of Radionuclides and Toxic Chemicals from Contaminated Soils Below a Shallow Soil Cover) demonstrates that multiple processes make covers ineffective at preventing exposure to contamination. Plant roots, for example, penetrate far deeper than the 2-3 foot soil cover, bringing pollutants up to the surface.
The paper by Dr. Wilshire (Bioturbation, Erosion, and Seismic Activity Make Shallow Soil Covers Ineffective at Isolating Contamination) identifies other problems with covers, including burrowing animals that bring contaminated soil to the surface, erosional processes, and earthquake risks in an area of high liquefaction potential.
Failing to clean up the contamination as promised and relying instead on ineffective thin covers and institutional controls––which have to be breached in any case for the massive construction project––is at odds with the Navy’s public promises, the position of San Francisco voters, the official Policy of the City, and what is needed to protect public health.
The reports are the latest in a series on Hunters Point issued by the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a non-profit nuclear policy organization. The first report showed that polluting activities that took place at the site were far more widespread than previously realized. The second showed that nonetheless, the Navy simply assumed that 90% of Hunters Point sites were non-impacted and thus didn’t test them, and for the sites that were tested, failed to test for 90% of radionuclides of concern. The third study showed that the cleanup standards used by the Navy were decades out of date and far less protective than that required by EPA Superfund guidance. The full set of reports can be found here.