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Fallout: The Past Is Present 

The Nuclear Witnesses

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
Frank Brinton peers out the car window and shakes his head. Hunters Point Shipyard sure doesn't look like it did when he left in 1973. For the nearly 30 years he spent here, the shipyard was a buzz of people, cars, ships, and work. Now it appears desolate and decrepit, except for the trucks driving around. Weeds have consumed most of the pavement surrounding abandoned buildings with broken windows and antique signs. Nonetheless, Brinton can still navigate the cracking streets, noting who worked in this building, what happened in that one; clearly, he's got a map of the shipyard etched inside his head somewhere, particularly as regards the south side of the base, where he spent a lot of his time. In fact, he actually created that south side.

When Brinton started work here in 1945, the shipyard met the bay next to Crisp Avenue, near the shipyard's south entrance. Brinton and his co-workers slowly filled in the adjacent bay with rock and soil from a hillside above the water's edge, sand from somewhere down the coast, and shipyard trash. Decades of filling later, the southern edge of the erstwhile naval base is now about 300 yards to the south, separated only by a narrow inlet from Candlestick Park.

Brinton began work at Hunters Point as a civilian, newly released from the Navy after World War II. His first job was driving a bulldozer in what was then the dump, down on the southeastern tip of the shipyard, close to where some of the Pacific fleet docked. Just about everything discarded from the shipyard went into the dump; Brinton or some other fellow had the job of pushing it into a pile. At the end of most weekdays, the dump pile was set afire. The following morning, he remembers, the charred remains were pushed into the bay. That's just the way things were done back then.

"The whole area along the waterfront we used for fill," he says. "We had quite a big area ... we pretty much dumped wherever we wanted to back then."

Brinton left bulldozer duty after he began coughing up blood, a result, he believes, of breathing the smoke from those fires, some of which almost certainly wafted over the nearby residential neighborhood known as the Bayview. Waste was burned at the shipyard until about 1960, he says, when people started to get uneasy about environmental problems. ("When people like you started writing about things like that," he kids.) Then the waste handlers began burying everything.

By 1947, Brinton had become supervisor of public works, which means that he was in charge of, among many other things, shipyard waste disposal. During his career, there were four different dump sites at the shipyard, the youngest of which is a now-infamous 46-acre landfill that caught fire two years ago and has been the subject of constant controversy in environmental cleanup plans for the decommissioned base.

"Everything came to the dump," he says.

Everything, Brinton explains, included whatever was left behind by ships that came into port -- from food to clothing to equipment -- and, from the shipyard operation itself, just about anything used in 20th-century American industry: a whole lot of lead-based paint, lead-containing batteries, plastic, wood, paper, building materials, concrete, and asphalt. That's not to mention railroad ties soaked with creosote, tons of tires, oil, diesel fuel, asbestos, and a host of industrial chemicals that were routinely used until the mid-1970s, and that now are known to cause cancer.

Among the other interesting substances put in dumps or used as shipyard fill over the years, Brinton says, were large amounts of sandblast material -- the remains of attempts to scour ships contaminated during atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific and, later, other Navy vessels -- and the carcasses of mice, rats, and other animals irradiated during nuclear research at a top-secret laboratory located in the shipyard.

"If anybody had anything they didn't know what to do with, they put it out in containers and it went into the dump," he says. "We had trash pickup just like any other city. We had six different trucks hauling from different places [plus a tank on wheels for liquids]. All of it eventually went into the dump."

San Francisco has big plans for Frank Brinton's dump, along with the rest of the former shipyard. The Navy-owned land is a federal Superfund site and the subject of a decades-long environmental cleanup project, the cost of which has already reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars. City and Navy officials are inking the final details of an agreement to transfer the first of seven parcels of the 500-acre former shipyard to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which, in turn, plans to develop the property into a mix of homes, offices, and retail, entertainment, and open spaces.

But while federal and local representatives fine-tune the details of how each piece of land might be transferred, the Navy still has to come to terms with the environmental sins of the past.

Several key reports relating to the cleanup and transfer of Hunters Point Shipyard were released early this year -- but they lack key information that would, at least arguably, force the Navy to institute a higher level of environmental cleanup than it has planned.

Because Hunters Point was for more than two decades home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, the military's largest applied nuclear research lab, one of those reports, focused on radiological activities and substances, has been billed as exhaustive. Known as a Historical Radiation Assessment, that report, released in late March, is based on information from shipyard employees and documents that might shed light on how and where radioactive substances were used at the base.

But the report, which Navy officials acknowledge is years late, fails to document the complete history of radiological activities and waste disposal at the shipyard. In compiling the assessment, the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office did indeed look at some records, and interview some former shipyard workers.

But the study is hardly definitive.

According to its report, the Navy apparently did not interview anyone who worked at the shipyard before 1952, even though the greatest carelessness in handling nuclear material at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory almost certainly occurred in the late 1940s, during the first years of the Cold War, when interest in radiation was soaring and knowledge of the dangers of nuclear material was minimal.

The Navy did not interview the people who carried out maintenance at the base, and who would, potentially, know about what waste went where.

The Navy did not ask anyone who worked outside the radiation lab buildings what they did with waste.

The Navy did not contact the men who loaded or unloaded ships that carried waste.

The Navy did not talk to Frank Brinton, the man who, for nearly three decades, was in charge of a shipyard landfill that has long been at the center of controversy over the oft-criticized cleanup of Hunters Point.

And the Navy did not talk to Richard Logan, a man who helped remove the interior fixtures from an aircraft carrier irradiated during atomic bomb tests and helped install them into buildings on what was then the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point.

During the height of the Cold War, Hunters Point Shipyard was among the busiest Navy bases in the country, large enough to handle any ship in the Navy's fleet. More than 7,000 military and civilian employees worked there, keeping vessels repaired and afloat.

In 1946, the United States detonated two 23-kiloton atomic bombs over a fleet of target ships anchored near Bikini atoll in the South Pacific Ocean. Many of the ships targeted in the Operation Crossroads tests were towed back to Hunters Point Shipyard. Most of the ships were too damaged and radioactive to reuse and were eventually sunk -- but not before military scientists had a chance to study and experiment with the early nuclear weapon targets.

Those early studies gave birth to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, which grew on Hunters Point Shipyard until it eventually included more than 600 civilian and military scientists working with all branches of the military. For 23 years, the NRDL experimented with applied uses of radiation, contaminating and decontaminating vessels, inanimate objects, land, animals, and occasionally humans in the name of protecting Americans' health and safety. Lab personnel participated in virtually every nuclear test in the United States until 1969, when operations shut down.

The shipyard closed its gates as an active military base in 1974. The Navy began seriously addressing environmental problems at the shipyard in the early 1990s, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency added the property to the national list of Superfund sites.

In 2000, after years of on-again-off-again negotiations, the city of San Francisco and the U.S. Navy agreed on a method for transferring the shipyard, in parcels, to city ownership. The details were set out in a January 2001 agreement between Mayor Willie Brown and Secretary of the Navy Gordon England. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has planned a mixed-use community on the bay-front property, which is to include 1,800 homes.

In May 2001, SF Weekly reported, in the two opening parts of the series "Fallout," that the Navy had, mostly owing to the scientific ignorance of bygone eras, grossly mishandled radioactive substances and other chemical waste at the property. The series also revealed the Navy's failure to research and disclose much of the radiological history of Hunters Point Shipyard.

This spring, the Navy released a much-anticipated first draft of its Historical Radiation Assessment, a report on radioactive materials used and disposed of through the years at the shipyard. According to its author, the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office, the 634-page report took five years and more than $2 million to complete. The purpose of the document, of course, was to identify areas that require special attention and cleanup because of their radiation history; such an assessment is, therefore, usually undertaken early in the environmental cleanup of an area with a nuclear past.

At Hunters Point, however, the report was decades late in coming. The Navy's contractors are working on the fifth stage of a radiation cleanup plan -- meaning either that the contractors will have to review all of their previous work in light of information newly disclosed by the radiation assessment, or that the report is essentially meaningless to the cleanup effort.

"The Navy realizes that the [Historical Radiation Assessment] should have come out years before it did," explains Dave DeMars, the Navy's lead remedial project manager at the shipyard. "It literally took years to complete."

Despite the time and resources devoted to researching the shipyard's radiation history, the Navy's report is curiously less than rigorous in many ways. For example, only eight former shipyard employees were interviewed for the report, none of whom worked there earlier than 1952. All of those interviewed worked inside the NRDL, most of them either as scientists or in management positions.

To be sure, these men all held important jobs in their day, but their positions seem to have little bearing on a question that Frank Brinton asks with unintentional understatement: "What would they know about what happened to the garbage?"

According to their own report, Navy researchers did not interview anyone who actually handled waste at the shipyard; nor did they speak with anyone who handled radioactive waste sent out to be dumped at sea (a process that ended in 1970).

The Navy did not speak with anyone who loaded or unloaded ships, installed, removed, or repaired equipment, operated machinery, or performed any other job in the yard on a regular basis, and who might therefore have actually witnessed waste-handling.

In a written answer to SF Weekly's questions about the report, Navy radiological officials explained their methods this way: "Finding personnel to interview for the [Historical Radiation Assessment] has proven to be one of our biggest challenges. Most personnel who managed operations using [general radiation materials] at Hunters Point Shipyard in the 1940s to 1950s are no longer living or have limited memory of the operations."

No doubt many people who worked at the shipyard in the years immediately following World War II have died, but the U.S. Navy certainly has mastered challenges more difficult than finding former employees whose addresses are in government files and computers. Most of the civilian employees of the shipyard served at one point or another in the military; if still alive, they receive pension checks and health care services from the government. A crowd of people who worked at Hunters Point gathers annually for a reunion lunch in South San Francisco; in recent years, 150 to 200 people have attended, and many of them have connections to the shipyard dating back to the 1940s. The group maintains a roster. For that matter, most of the people on the roster are listed in the phone book.

But the failure to find people who worked with shipyard waste is not the only apparent incongruity in the report.

The Historical Radiation Assessment lists several locations at the shipyard as having been cleaned of radiation, or never having contained nuclear materials. But some of those "clean" locations are also scheduled in the report to be resurveyed for possible radiological contamination -- a happenstance that has caught the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In reviewing the Navy's report, both agencies noted, with some puzzlement, that several supposedly clean buildings are scheduled for resurvey without any apparent explanation.

"Where there is good evidence that radiation materials were used, we've gone back to make sure that emissions in those areas are clean," DeMars explains. "We're being very conservative about going back over these buildings."

But it may be difficult to be conservative where the Navy report is, apparently, simply wrong. Consider shipyard Building 821, for instance, which the Navy contends was used only as an X-ray facility, and never contained radiation sources. Nonetheless, Navy contractors resurveyed the building and removed cesium, a cancer-causing radioactive material, from a drainpipe.

On the other hand, some potentially hazardous sites aren't reflected in the study's findings, because they apparently weren't investigated.

In "Fallout," SF Weekly reported that, according to historical documents contained in the National Archives, the shipyard's Building 539 was used to store radioisotopes until at least 1956, and Building 354 was used in the early 1950s for "high level NRDL projects." Neither building is mentioned in the Historical Radiation Assessment.

The Navy does not have records on all of the former buildings used by the NRDL, explains Vincent DeInnocentiis, health physicist for the Navy's Radiological Affairs Support Office. Many of those buildings have been torn down, he says, in which case Navy officials attempt to find and survey the former area where the building most likely existed. Also, DeInnocentiis says, there are typographical errors in some of the old records, and building numbers are simply wrong. Despite these potentially permanent gaps in information, Navy officials have no plans to survey areas outside those in which their research indicates radiological materials may have been stored or used.

In a manner of speaking, Frank Brinton knows where the bodies are buried at Hunters Point Shipyard. Indeed, the largest shipyard on the West Coast presented him with some odd disposal challenges over the years ... including dead animals irradiated at a nuclear research laboratory located on the base.

NRDL scientists experimented on thousands of animals during their research into the effects of radiation on living organisms. The Navy's Historical Radiation Assessment, citing an official 1969 NRDL report, says irradiated animals were disposed of with great care. To wit:

"Radioactive carcasses of small animals used in irradiation studies were contained in plastic bags with formaldehyde and placed in 20-gallon cans for disposal in accordance with [Atomic Energy Commission] regulations. When bags containing carcasses were added to drums of waste for disposal, the bags were punctured and sand was added to fill voids and cover all carcasses. Larger animals were disposed of in concrete casks."

By Brinton's account, the process was less ... orderly.

In the early years, Brinton says, most of the mice and rats used in NRDL experiments were simply put into the shipyard dump. As operations grew, the Navy contracted with an outside firm to remove most of the bigger animals used in the lab. (Scientists irradiated animals as large as horses and cows.) Nonetheless, even in later years, Brinton remembers getting called periodically to dispose of irradiated animal carcasses from the lab.

"It always seemed to be just at quitting time," he muses. "And, in those days, there wasn't overtime. So I just did it myself."

Brinton says he would hop on a loader, pick up the carcasses, and bury them wherever there was an open spot, mostly along Spear Avenue, between an older dump and the newer landfill.

As the radiation lab grew and began to move into larger quarters, Brinton and his men tore down some of the old buildings it had occupied, which were located near where a San Francisco Police Department building now stands. The construction debris from those buildings went to the shipyard dump.

At one point, while San Francisco built Candlestick Park, Frank Brinton also built a baseball field ... atop an old dump site. Then the Navy erected a big concrete building to house single enlisted men ... on top of an old dump site. (The building is still standing, on the south side of the shipyard.)

The Navy's Historical Radiation Assessment doesn't mention the nuclear dumping Brinton describes.

Or the daily burning of shipyard refuse.

Or the daily deposits of burnt refuse into San Francisco Bay.

Richard Logan lives outside of Sacramento with his wife, Patricia, whom he met at Hunters Point Shipyard. They fondly remember a time when Hunters Point was among the busiest yards on the West Coast, and everyone pulled together to get the Navy's business done. Logan grew up on Alvarado Street in San Francisco and graduated from Mission High School. He served in the Navy during World War II and again during the Korean War, and worked as a civilian at Hunters Point until he retired in 1973.

During his 23 years at Hunters Point Shipyard, Logan worked in a lot of buildings. Between 1946 and 1951, Logan was a shop planner at the yard, which meant that he connected equipment and people to particular jobs.

He vividly remembers the USS Independence, a 10,000-ton aircraft carrier that came back to San Francisco after Operation Crossroads. The ship was so badly damaged in the Bikini tests, and so hot with radiation, that it had to be scuttled.

Logan remembers the Independence because he was involved in the removal of equipment from the ship, a process that took place in front of Building 253, while the ship was berthed between Dry Docks 3 and 4, on the east side of the shipyard. The equipment, he says, was reused throughout the yard.

"There was all kinds of stuff that came off that ship, and they weren't throwing it away," Logan says. His late brother-in-law, a rigger at the shipyard, worked on unloading most of the contents of the ship, Logan says.

Logan supervised one project in particular: the removal of the telephone switchboard from the USS Independence so it could be installed on the second floor of Building 253. The switchboard and associated telephones and wiring became known as the "Blue Bell System" and connected electrical and other workshops throughout the shipyard. The system's equipment was installed around Hunters Point Shipyard, Logan says.

"Whatever equipment was required to make it work came off the ship," Logan says. "This was a good, practical deal -- if it were safe. But I don't think they knew what was safe back then."

Logan remembers that the ground floor of Building 253 -- which resembles a garage -- was used as a staging area where the fixtures taken from the Independence were stored until they were used somewhere else on the shipyard. In fact, early NRDL records show that the building was used to store equipment and other lab items that were ready for disposal but were "too hot" to mix with regular salvage.

The Navy's Historical Radiation Assessment, however, doesn't mention anything about reusing parts of the Independence. As for Building 253, the report states that the fifth floor may be contaminated because it housed optical and gauge repair shops, and that the sixth floor housed a room where the radiation lab used some materials to calibrate instruments.

"The only [radiation-related materials] used and stored in the instrument calibration room were sealed check sources," the report states, adding that no contamination was found in a 1974 survey. Still, the building is designated for rescreening against new radiological criteria.

DeInnocentiis, the Navy's health physicist, confirms that, indeed, Navy personnel did use equipment from target ships returned from Bikini throughout shipyard buildings, even though that use was not included in the Navy's historical assessment. The equipment, he says, was cleared before it was removed from the ships in the late 1940s.

Historical documents obtained from the National Archives clearly show that radiation testing in the wake of Operation Crossroads was unthinkably lax by today's standards, thanks to a void of scientific knowledge about the effects of radiation and a severe lack of adequate monitoring equipment. Today, there is no way to know where all of the fixtures or equipment from the Bikini nuclear tests ended up at Hunters Point.

Certainly, environmental problems at Hunters Point Shipyard are not limited to radiation. They're not even limited to things that happened on land.

Part of the environmental cleanup project concerns an area of the shipyard known as Parcel F, 450 acres of offshore sediment surrounding the former shipyard. In April, Navy officials released the results of a study done by their contractors to evaluate offshore sediments around the bay edge of the shipyard. The report is the fourth such study done in attempts to determine appropriate cleanup measures for the parcel. And, again, the recent report seems remarkably incomplete.

The highest chemical pollution in Parcel F, according to the report, was found in an area to the south of the shipyard, near the landfill. The Navy concluded that carcinogenic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- once widely used in industrial settings, particularly in lubricants and coolants -- were found at unacceptably high levels in certain parts of the sediment, and therefore would be cleaned up.

But regulators from state and federal agencies were highly critical of the overall methodology in the report -- and its tendency to make pollution disappear in the statistics.

In their report, Navy contractors considered only the portion of the Navy's underwater real estate closest to the shipyard property, something that regulators reportedly reluctantly agreed to a few years ago. (Navy officials have argued that San Francisco Bay is so contaminated by other polluters that the Navy's area, even after being cleaned, is likely to become tainted by sources outside Navy control.) Then, the Navy used a method of determining pollution levels that, basically, relied on mathematical combinations of test results, rather than considering the results individually.

The outcome of this combination all but excluded contamination from metals like copper and mercury, and showed that only one area of sediment around the shipyard -- the area near the South Basin -- warranted further evaluation for cleanup, essentially eliminating the Navy's responsibility for the rest of Parcel F.

Regulators were scathing in their responses.

In official comments on the Navy report, EPA officials said they believe that evidence from testing the sediment "clearly shows unacceptable risk" in at least four areas around the base property. In his response to the Navy's study, Ned Black, regional ecologist/microbiologist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, wrote: "Sadly, the Navy has chosen to produce a study ... which is little more than an elaborate but poor excuse to avoid the Navy's responsibility as a trustee and under [Superfund law] to protect the environment on and adjacent to Navy property."

The regulators also noted that the Navy had not addressed what, if any, ecological risk there might be from exposure to radioisotopes. "We don't like it if things are simply not mentioned," Black told SF Weekly. "We like things spelled out. Omitting things doesn't sit well with us."

Lee Saunders, the Navy's environmental public affairs officer, refused to comment on either the Parcel F study or the EPA's charges, saying that it was "too premature" in the process to address those matters.

The schedule for transferring the various parcels of Hunters Point Shipyard to San Francisco ownership has changed so many times that, in practical terms, it doesn't really exist anymore. The project is stuck in a sort of limbo, awaiting resolution of myriad environmental problems.

Among those problems is an odd and complicated argument about how much of Mother Nature the Navy has a responsibility to clean up. For example: Long ago, when the shipyard was busy and expanding like gangbusters, the Navy sheared off part of a hill above Hunters Point and spread it around to fill in low spots in the shipyard. The soil from the hill contains high levels of manganese, a metal that can cause mental and emotional disturbances in humans.

Navy officials argue that the manganese is naturally occurring, and therefore not something they have to clean up. The California Department of Toxic Substance and Control believes that when the Navy altered what was in nature -- by breaking it up and spreading it around -- the Navy took on the responsibility for the results, one of which happens to be manganese contamination. Complicating matters are the city's hopes to build the crown jewel of the Hunters Point redevelopment project, the Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology (BAYCAT), a nonprofit arts-based vocational training program, in one of the areas most contaminated by manganese.

The two governmental entities have basically reached a standstill on the issue. Talks are scheduled to resume on the situation in September.

In the meantime, attorneys representing the Navy and the city, along with various representatives of City Hall, Bayview activists, and Arc Ecology, a San Francisco environmental watchdog organization, continue to work on an acceptable agreement to transfer Parcel A, a former Navy housing area considered to be the cleanest part of the shipyard, and the rules by which the rest of shipyard property will be transferred. This agreement will allow the city to accept or reject each parcel of land after the regulators sign off that the property has been adequately cleaned.

The city cannot accept Parcel A until regulators say it's clean. Regulators won't sign off until the Navy takes care of problems in areas adjacent to Parcel A -- including the migration of methane gas out of a shipyard landfill (see "Burning Mad," Page 17). "The main focus for the conveyance agreement is the notion that we have to make sure that the adjacency issues are taken care of," says Jesse Blout, development director at the Mayor's Office of Business and Economic Development. "If we're going to accept and start developing property, we need to make sure that there aren't any lingering questions about risk."

Navy officials seem to have a different view of the situation.

"What is really holding up Parcel A is the conveyance agreement. Once that agreement is negotiated, then the Parcel A conveyance can go forward," says Foreman, the Navy's base closure and environmental coordinator.

After years of stalled negotiations, there has arguably been an increase in the exchange of information concerning the transfer of the shipyard to civilian control during the past several months. Higher-ranking military brass are now at the negotiating table, and Bayview community activists, with the help of Arc Ecology and other organizations, have become more assertive.

Still, no matter how badly the city of San Francisco wants to take control of the shipyard and make it into a 500-acre, mixed-use, bay-front development, the property can't be transferred until the Navy cleans it up.

And it will be difficult for the Navy to convince anyone that the property is clean until it can say, with some authority, what pollutants existed there. Supposedly definitive reports that are internally inconsistent, that don't match the memories of people who worked on the shipyard every day for decades, and that attempt to obscure reality with statistics are unlikely to be viewed as authoritative, by people in or out of the government.

The U.S. Navy's biggest problem at the former San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point is one of credibility. The Navy has repeatedly failed to tell city officials, environmental regulators, and, perhaps most important, area residents about environmental hazards on the property.

One of the biggest revelations in the Historical Radiation Assessment the Navy released this year is a three-page list of 109 radioactive substances -- from those whose effects last only seconds to those that remain poisonous for thousands of years -- used at Hunters Point Shipyard. And that alone highlights a massive betrayal of trust: In the nearly three decades since the Navy left the shipyard, and during at least a decade of environmental cleanup, such an exhaustive list had never been produced.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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