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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."

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Lisa Davis


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