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Glowing Review 

The Navy says radiation levels are within federal safety guidelines, but are higher than what is legally acceptable for the property to be transferred

Wednesday, Oct 1 2003
Sculptors who are members of the Point, an artist community at the former Hunters Point Shipyard, have been notified that the building where they've been working -- in some cases for years -- is contaminated with radioactive materials, and they'll have to move out within months.

As part of an ongoing investigation into radiological contamination at the former shipyard, a Navy contractor found cesium and radium in parts of an industrial building that is being used as a work space for 29 artists, most of whom are sculptors. Cesium is a radioactive element produced by nuclear fission, and is found in fallout from atomic weapons tests. In high doses, cesium can cause vomiting, nausea, and bleeding; severe radiation poisoning can result in coma or death. Radium is an element often formed from the breakdown of uranium. In past decades, the U.S. military used radium, mixed with paint, to illuminate ship dials, signs, and deck markers. In high doses, radium is known to cause cancer.

Shipyard contractors found the radioactive elements inside drains, pipes, and parts of an unused ventilation system in Building 366, a cavernous warehouse where artists have painted, sculpted, and welded for several years, under a lease from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Navy officials say the levels of cesium and radium found in Building 366 are well within federal guidelines dealing with safety and health, and the artists are not in danger. But the Navy hopes to transfer this portion of the shipyard to city control within the next few years, and the levels of radioactivity found are as much as six times higher than what is legally acceptable on property the military would place in civilian hands. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency has plans to build homes, retail space, and recreation areas on the 500-acre site, once it is cleaned.

Artists and shipyard neighbors remain skeptical of the Navy's safety assurances, in part because the military has repeatedly found contaminants in places that were previously pronounced clean -- including Building 366. "It's a little scary for all of us," Georgia Oliva, a shipyard artist and member of the Navy's Restoration Advisory Board, a community liaison group, told Navy officials at an advisory board meeting last Thursday. "They [the artists] use blowtorches, and all of that equipment is going to have to be moved. We want it scanned. And we certainly would like to find out more about the dust."

The Hunters Point Shipyard, a Superfund site included on the Environmental Protection Agency's national priority list, is the subject of a decade-long environmental cleanup. In addition to a century of use as an industrial shipyard, the former military base was, from 1947 to 1969, home to a top-secret Department of Defense laboratory for applied nuclear research known as the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. Among other things, the laboratory participated in every nuclear test the United States performed during that time. NRDL scientists collected and studied fallout material and conducted experiments on animals present during the tests. The laboratory conducted research on more than 100 radioactive isotopes at 88 known sites on the shipyard. An SF Weekly investigative project, "Fallout," has documented numerous incidents in which NRDL scientists mishandled radioactive materials.

Building 366 was one of several shipyard buildings used by the NRDL, though it's not clear exactly what activities the lab conducted there. According to the Navy, the building was surveyed when the NRDL moved out of it in 1955, and radiological readings were deemed to be within acceptable limits for health and safety. It was surveyed again in 2001, as part of the Navy's comprehensive Historical Radiation Assessment, and again found to be clean.

But the previous surveys did not include testing inside pipes and ventilation ducts. After researching classified and archival records on former NRDL activities, the Navy earlier this year had contractors perform a thorough radiological investigation, which turned up the cesium and radium. Navy officials would not elaborate on what records were reviewed or what activities those records indicated may have taken place in Building 366.

The resurveying of Building 366 illuminates a point of conflict among the members of the community adjacent to the shipyard, Navy officials, and state and federal regulators. The Navy has never completed a total survey of all the land and buildings at the shipyard. Such a wide-ranging survey is considered cost-prohibitive and ineffective. Instead, as is common in federal environmental cleanups, the Navy has conducted tests where research and observation have produced reason to believe that there is the possibility for contamination.

But Hunters Point has a unique set of problems. It was home to a top-secret radiation lab during the Cold War, and officials do not know exactly what went on there -- and they may never know. Further, the laboratory expanded rapidly during its early years, moving in and out of buildings across the shipyard.

The Navy's approach to possible radiological contamination at Hunters Point has been less than methodical. It didn't produce its first Historical Radiation Assessment of the shipyard until 2001, nearly 10 years after the environmental cleanup of Hunters Point had begun; such an assessment is usually one of the first environmental studies undertaken at a contaminated military site once involved with radiological materials. And the draft HRA was incomplete and, in some places, inaccurate. Another, more comprehensive version is due out within 60 days.

Because of this on-and-off approach to radiological contamination, some areas of the shipyard once thought to be clean are now known to be contaminated. Work in other areas must be repeated because new information has been unearthed. And surprise findings in the field have halted some environmental work altogether.

Work on another shipyard radiation site, Building 253, recently ceased after researchers found more extensive radioactive contamination than previously had been suspected. The building had been cleared in the past; according to the Navy's previous reports, the only radioactive material used in the building had been in sealed sources used to calibrate instruments, and those sources had been confined to one floor of the building. But SF Weekly reported last year that former employees remembered that Building 253 had housed contaminated parts taken from ships used as targets in early nuclear weapons tests.

Critics wonder if, at this point, it wouldn't have been more efficient to have created a grid of the shipyard property and systematically tested all the land for hot spots, instead of surveying only where there's some information that something may have happened. "It's a problem," notes one official involved in the cleanup. "When they do conduct these investigations, everybody kind of hopes we're going to catch everything. The grid approach is really hard to sell because of the money."

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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