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Chlorine, Benzene, Vinyl Chloride, Trichloroethylene, Beryllium, Nickel, PCBs ... 

Even if radioactivity were ignored, Hunters Point Shipyard would be one of the planet's most polluted properties

Wednesday, May 2 2001
Last month, environmental contractors working for the U.S. Navy at Hunters Point Shipyard spilled 1,200 gallons of potassium permanganate, a chemical that can be fatal to aquatic life, into San Francisco Bay. Workers were pumping the substance into the soil, hoping to break up a subterranean plume of toxic solvents, when they realized that the water surrounding the shipyard had turned purple. Somehow, these environmental experts had not foreseen the relatively foreseeable likelihood that the potassium permanganate they had pumped into the ground would eventually seep into the shipyard's ancient, cracked storm sewers and then flow into the bay.

While certainly an unusual circumstance, this potassium permanganate affair was not particularly stunning when judged in the context of the Navy's history of environmental stewardship at Hunters Point Shipyard. This is the same Navy, after all, that let a landfill suspected of containing many highly toxic substances burn for three weeks last year without notifying anyone. And it's the same Navy that has repeatedly claimed it is taking all necessary actions to clean up toxins on and under the former base, even as it steadfastly maintains that there are few records that would show what pollutants were dumped in and on the property.

Clearly, Hunters Point would be an extraordinarily polluted place, even if no radiation legacy existed. The shipyard contains a toxic stew of poisonous metals and chemicals, including many that are carcinogens and some, like vinyl chloride, a gas used as a propellant in aerosols before it was found to cause cancer, that are as harmful to humans as radiation. For a century, after all, Hunters Point was a naval shipyard, and after that, the Navy leased out part of the property to businesses that broke up ships for scrap, one of the dirtiest industries known to man.

Since the Navy stopped using its 500-acre property for military purposes in 1974, it has spent more than $150 million studying and cleaning the site. Even so, the investigations undertaken by Navy contractors appear not to have been particularly comprehensive, and those contractors' attempts at environmental cleanup have seemed, to many observers, almost laughably incomplete and ineffective. Environmental documents show that contractors hired by the Navy have been constantly surprised by the amounts and types of toxic waste infesting the former shipyard; Navy officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly obfuscated the exact nature of the pollutants deposited on and in the shipyard. At one point, the Navy even walked away from the cleanup effort entirely, until a lawsuit forced it back to work.

"They [the Navy] have been completely irresponsible in terms of the facility," says Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, a San Francisco watchdog organization that has sued the Navy. "You have a pattern and practice going on since the Navy closed the base of complete and utter milking of the cow by the contractors out there, complete naval mismanagement of the contractors, just pissing money away. Now that we're coming up at the end of the day, where it's time to transfer the property over to San Francisco, they [say they] can't afford to spend any more money, and we're just going to have to accept that."

Some of the shipyard's more obvious environmental problems -- underground and surface fuel and chemical storage tanks, for example -- have been removed. A "pickling and plating" vat that held acid used for cleaning ship parts also was carted off. So were more than 4,600 tons of sandblast waste, which, at minimum, contained lead paint chips and a toxic anti-foulant routinely used on ship hulls to control the growth of algae and barnacles.

But in the absence of information from the Navy, and because the Navy has refused to conduct a thorough, grid-by-grid investigation of the entire shipyard, contractors have constantly been surprised; attempting to solve one environmental problem, they've found another. And often the new problem has been more dangerous and daunting than the old.

A few years ago, the Navy agreed to install a sheet-metal-and-pilings wall around the southeast end of the property as a temporary barrier that would, supposedly, keep ground water contaminated by the shipyard's landfill from leaching into the bay. During the process of inserting the wall into the ground, however, contractors hit something and -- surprise -- a green cloud of potentially lethal gas shot into the air. If the landfill is simply capped, as the Navy has suggested, it will remain a frightening, conceivably deadly mystery, even if any possibility of radiological contamination is ignored.

On the opposite end of the shipyard, contractors began excavating soil contaminated with heavy metals, only to find that the contaminated area was larger than they thought. They dug in an ever-widening circle, encountering ever more contamination, before giving up, filling the hole, and walking away. ARC Ecology sued the Navy to restart the cleanup, this time with more extensive testing to determine the boundaries of the problem. As the legal haggling continued, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards for cleanup of the soil were eased, making much of the Navy's heavy-metals problem go away.

A plan to clean up a decades-old oil reclamation pond near the shipyard landfill went similarly awry. The Navy dumped used oil in the pond for decades. At first, contractors thought they could simply drain the pond, but hauling off several tanker trucks full of an oil-seawater mix had almost no effect. Finally, the contractors just stopped pumping. They're still at the drawing board, trying to figure out what to do with the seemingly bottomless pond.

Even if no more environmental surprises leap from the shipyard, the known hazards on the property are downright scary. Near the middle of the property lies a particularly nasty spill of trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent used for cleaning and degreasing that is itself a carcinogen and that breaks down into vinyl chloride, also known to cause cancer. The TCE spill apparently covers at least three acres. TCE can cause cancer when it's ingested; usually this would occur when people drink water contaminated with the solvent. But TCE becomes even more dangerous to humans if it's broken down by soil bacteria into vinyl chloride gas.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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