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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
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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."

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Lisa Davis

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