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Burning Mad 

Deciding they just wouldn't take it anymore, Bayview citizens stopped a Navy plan to incinerate toxic gas at Hunters Point Shipyard

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
Jesse Mason stands on a steep hill near Hunters Point Shipyard and looks out across the south end of the property. The view is spectacular, and on a day like this, with near-perfect weather, you can see little flashes of sun reflecting on the water all the way across the bay. Candlestick Park looms in the foreground, across Yosemite Creek. This was once Mason's playground, before there was a stadium, of course, back when there were rodeos around here and folks drove cattle down Third Street to the slaughterhouses.

In 1947, Mason was born in a home on a road that no longer exists, behind a razor-wire fence, inside the shipyard. His family lived in one of the former military barracks taken over by the city to house poor and working-class minorities, most of whom had come to San Francisco for industrial jobs related to the shipyard. A fair number of Mason's former neighbors are dead, and three of his family members have suffered from cancer or diabetes, including his 5-year-old nephew, who died of cancer in May. It's not an unusual story here, but one that motivated Mason's work in the community.

Mason is economic development director for the nonprofit Bayview Community Advocates and serves on the Navy's Restoration Advisory Board, a 20-member body that is, essentially, the public's voice to the Navy on matters relating to the environmental cleanup of Hunters Point Shipyard. The law doesn't give citizens real authority over the shipyard, but in the last year or so shipyard neighbors have become increasingly vigilant in watching over the Navy and its toxic chemicals. In fact, after years of being virtually ignored and losing environmental fights on Hunters Point, the Bayview seems, finally, to have won a round against the Navy -- one that may foreshadow bigger battles to come.

At the center of the storm is a 46-acre landfill located on the south end of the shipyard. Earlier this year, Navy contractors found that methane gas produced in the landfill had traveled onto adjacent property. If it collects inside buildings or other enclosed places, methane can explode; state regulators notified the Navy in May that it would have to correct the situation.

Navy officials proposed to collect and burn methane and other pollutants the gas had carried out of the landfill in what would have been, essentially, a toxic waste incinerator. In a fast-moving response, some of Mason's colleagues on the advisory board joined with environmental nonprofit Arc Ecology and state and federal regulators to successfully stop that plan. And Navy officials two weeks ago agreed to a more passive way to solve the problem, one that does not involve burning.

Actually, no one is saying the compromise is a complete victory for the environment. The method of dealing with the methane that has been agreed to -- filtering pollutants from it -- will vent the gas, which is linked to the greenhouse effect, into the atmosphere. But politically, it was a clear win for Bayview community activists, who managed to nip the Navy's methane-burning plan in the bud.

"We're worried about the ozone layer, too, but it is a victory," says Lynne Brown, co-chairman of the Restoration Advisory Board, who worked on the landfill issue. "The Navy had their mind on what they were going to do, and we told them, 'No, you're not going to do that.'"

Methane is a common byproduct of the disintegration of waste in landfills. Typically, the advanced age of the landfill at Hunters Point -- created in 1960 and dormant since the late 1970s -- would mean that chemical activity inside it, including the production of methane, would have slowed in recent years. But the Hunters Point dump is no ordinary landfill; former employees say diesel fuel, oil, solvents, lead-based paint, and a host of other chemicals, many of them cancer-causing, were deposited there.

As far back as 1994, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, noted that pockets of methane gas in the landfill were a potential public health concern, but didn't investigate whether the gas was migrating. ATSDR did, however, advise the Navy to monitor the situation.

In the fall of 2000, Navy contractors installed a temporary cap on the landfill to extinguish a fire that had burned for three weeks before nearby residents were notified. Adding this multilayered top changed the dynamics of the landfill, where gas may have been venting freely up through the soil. Monitoring wells were supposed to be part of that project, but were not installed for several months. State regulators, in the meantime, dogged the Navy about monitoring methane gas along the perimeter of the landfill.

Finally, earlier this year, Navy contractors tested for methane gas and found that it had moved onto property that was once part of the shipyard, but now is owned by the University of California, which operates a laboratory there. Although the Navy reports that there is no methane gas inside the UC buildings, the migrating gas clearly constitutes an immediate threat. The California Integrated Waste Management Board, a part of the state Environmental Protection Agency that regulates waste, told the Navy that it was in violation of state regulations. By then, of course, the situation was an emergency.

"It is possible that the cap exacerbated the situation, but there is no way to know that," Keith Forman, Hunters Point base environmental coordinator, says. "No one understands the mechanism."

Forman also says that the Navy alerted the state regulators after it found that there was gas moving off the property. "You expect to find some methane gas in a landfill. It's not as if that is a surprise. It's only the migration off your property that creates a problem," he says. "If this landfill gas had not been migrating off our property, we would not be taking this emergency action."

But the emergency action the Navy tried to take sparked a quick and vehement response from the shipyard's neighbors -- one that could signal future conflict over the landfill's ultimate disposition.

After some research into the migrating methane problem, the Navy initially proposed the installation of several high-temperature thermal units that would collect and burn the gas. Burning, certainly, is not an uncommon method of disposing of landfill gas. But because of the amount and types of chemicals apparently dumped in the shipyard landfill, this migrating methane was almost certain to bring other toxins out of the ground with it. And burning those chemicals in the basic equivalent of a toxic waste incinerator would likely create something known as dioxins, chemical compounds that can cause skin disease, liver damage, and, in some cases, cancer.

Forman says the Navy's original plan called for using the most advanced technology available to burn or capture some 99 percent of the dioxins. The proposal sparked extraordinarily negative responses from neighborhood activists, environmentalists, and government regulators.

"The problem here is really a political one, where you can't make absolute statements," Forman explains. "With any thermal destruction system you can't absolutely state to the community that absolutely no dioxins will be produced at any time. We didn't want to get into the unfortunate trap of that dioxin argument.

"The political landscape apparently doesn't easily allow you to defend that because there are apparently some extreme viewpoints on the dioxin issue."

Opponents of the proposal explain it another way.

"Dioxins are formed after the gas leaves the stack," says Chris Shirley, Arc Ecology's chief scientist on the Hunters Point cleanup. "So it's difficult to tell what dioxins are actually coming out of there. They would never have been able to satisfy the community."

Overwhelming opposition to the burning proposal forced the Navy to withdraw it inside a month. Navy contractors now plan to dig a 1,500-foot trench where the shipyard property borders the University of California property, and install a barrier wall between the two, at a cost of more than $2 million. The wall is expected to prevent methane from leaving the shipyard property, the trench to direct it into wells. At each well, the gas will pass through a carbon filter and another, as yet undetermined type of filter; this double filtering will capture chemicals being carried by the methane. Once cleaned in this manner, the methane will simply be allowed to escape into the atmosphere. (The U.S. Army has used such a passive venting system to solve a similar gas migration problem at the former Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato.)

Meanwhile, on the UC side of the property, Navy contractors plan to install vacuum units on a dozen wells, literally sucking gas out of the ground and through filters.

The passive venting system is not an environmentally benign one; methane will be released into the atmosphere (a process that does not trouble environmental regulators). "It's a trade-off," says Shirley. "You're not making dioxins, but you're releasing methane into the air. From our perspective, it's the best of a bunch of bad solutions."

While certainly pleased to have stopped even potential dioxins from wafting over the southeast portion of San Francisco, Bayview activists remain skeptical of the new plan, which also will likely send trucks hauling contaminated dirt through the community while the trench is under construction.

And though the methane gas situation clearly requires an immediate response, there's a growing concern among cleanup watchdogs about the Navy's use of emergency plans at the shipyard. The laws governing federal Superfund sites prescribe very specific procedures for environmental remediation. This long and arduous process involves sending plans to federal, state, and local agencies, to the general public, and to established watchdog groups like Arc Ecology for review. There must be formal responses to the criticisms of these parties, as well as public hearings.

The process is, of course, designed to keep everyone concerned about a Superfund cleanup in the loop.

But when there is an immediate threat to human health or the environment, federal law allows a property owner -- in this case, the U.S. Navy -- to take Emergency Removal Action; that is, to move forward without input or approval from other agencies or groups to fix the problem. At Hunters Point, Navy officials have come under fire in the past for using the emergency process to handle situations that are arguably not emergencies, just to skirt the lengthy public process attendant to the shipyard's environmental cleanup program. For instance, environmental watchdogs have questioned a recently completed "emergency" project that removed contaminated sediment from a dry dock at the shipyard -- sediment that had been in the dry dock for years.

Hard feelings existed between the community and the Navy long before methane gas became a problem. In August 2000, the shipyard landfill caught fire, and Navy officials allowed it to burn for nearly three weeks before alerting the city, the EPA, or the public. Nearby residents reported green smoke wafting over their heads. But by the time health officials learned about the fire, it was all but impossible to determine the impact on those residents. The EPA fined Navy officials $25,000 for not notifying proper authorities. More significantly, an already skeptical community stopped trusting the Navy about most everything.

This hardening of attitudes may impinge on the Navy's plans for dealing with the landfill at Hunters Point Shipyard. To date, the Navy has taken the unusual position that it does not know, precisely, what is in the landfill, but that excavating the landfill is too environmentally risky to contemplate. The dump must therefore, in the Navy's eyes, be capped and left permanently in place.

In the eyes of shipyard neighbors, the landfill is a continuing danger that must be eliminated.

"We still have a lot of questions," says the Restoration Advisory Board's Lynne Brown, adding that the controversy over methane has simply solidified the community's long-term goals for the landfill. "The only thing they can do, really, is remove the landfill."

Jesse Mason agrees. Looking across the area from the hill above, he reminisces about the things kids used to do growing up here, playing on the hillsides, innocent of methane and dioxins and the shipyard's many, many other toxins. Then Mason's conversation takes a more serious tone. "We want the landfill gone," he says. "We want it gone."

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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