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"The first [Historical Radiation Assessment] was rushed .... We should have ... done a better, more thorough job."

Wednesday, Mar 19 2003
Under pressure from community members and regulators to fully investigate toxic contamination at Hunters Point Shipyard, U.S. Navy officials have discovered several new sites that might be contaminated with radioactive substances -- including three in a neighborhood outside the former military base.

The Navy's Radiation Affairs Support Office is conducting a new search of historical documents as part of its cleanup efforts at Hunters Point Shipyard. Military operations ceased at the base in 1974, and the Navy plans to hand over the property to the city of San Francisco, which wants to develop it as a mixed-use community that includes residential, commercial, and industrial uses. But city officials have said that they will not accept the property until federal and state regulators certify that it has been cleaned of toxic waste.

At one time the largest Navy shipyard on the West Coast, Hunters Point is home to countless cancer-causing poisons used in, and improperly handled by, 20th-century industry. But Hunters Point has a special problem: From 1946 to 1969, the base housed the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, which researched and experimented with radioactive material and was a key post within America's early nuclear weapons testing program, beginning with the 1946 blasts near the Bikini Islands known as Operation Crossroads.

In a three-part series, "Fallout," SF Weekly reported that the Navy had, mostly owing to scientific ignorance in bygone eras, grossly mishandled radioactive substances and other chemical waste at the shipyard. The series also revealed that, as the Navy conducted an environmental cleanup of the property in advance of transferring it to the city, there was little effort to research or disclose the radiological history of Hunters Point Shipyard.

Last year, the Navy published a document known in environmental bureaucratese as a Draft Final Historical Radiological Assessment. The supposedly comprehensive report should have documented exactly what kind of radiological cleanup is needed at the shipyard, and where. But the assessment -- begun years later than is usual in such situations -- failed to mention several shipyard buildings and sites formerly used by NRDL personnel, and included interviews with fewer than 10 former employees of either the radiation lab or the shipyard, which at one time employed some 8,000 people.

Now, Navy officials are seeking former shipyard and NRDL workers to interview through, among other means, newspaper advertisements. Navy scientists also say they've recently discovered additional historical documents pertaining to radiological activities at the shipyard. The documents, many of which were located in government archives, apparently were not reviewed before the Navy published its original Historical Radiological Assessment. Others have been declassified by the Department of Energy, though not at the request of the Navy. (As part of a routine process that happens when classified government papers reach a certain age, they become available to review.)

Navy radiation officials also say that they have recently obtained a former NRDL department head's personal files, which, the service says, contain papers it has not reviewed as part of the environmental cleanup.

The newly located documents indicate that three former buildings located outside the base, near what is now Mariner's Village, an affordable-housing complex the Navy turned over to the city more than 20 years ago, housed the NRDL's Material and Accounts Division offices and storerooms. The Navy believes the buildings -- located in an area now bounded by Donahue and Earl streets and LaSalle and Jerrold avenues -- were demolished in 1952. Navy officials say the Material and Accounts Division was in charge of administrative tasks rather than laboratory operations. "For a long time, we've known about these buildings," Base Environmental Coordinator Keith Forman told residents of the area in a meeting the Navy arranged last week. "But we didn't know what was in them [other than housing]."

But community leaders say they asked Navy officials about the buildings nearly two years ago, before Forman arrived at the shipyard. "We saw them on the map," says Lynne Brown, head of the Navy's Restoration Advisory Board, a community liaison group. "We had talked about those buildings quite some time ago, asking about them. But we never got a straight answer."

The day after meeting with area residents, Forman was deployed to Korea and could not be reached for follow-up questioning. Dave DeMars, the Navy's lead remedial project manager at Hunters Point, says that information found so far does not warrant radiation testing of the Mariner's Village area. "The buildings were located where current and past housing was, so it stands to reason that they would be administrative," DeMars says.

But historical documents obtained from the National Archives show that two other buildings located across the street from Mariner's Village clearly were used by NRDL as something other than housing or offices. These two buildings were not mentioned in the Navy's Historical Radiation Assessment and have not been tested for contamination.

An April 1952 memo from the director of NRDL to the Navy's District Public Works director in San Bruno authorized the laboratory to store material in buildings E-204 and E-200, which, according to shipyard maps, were located on the eastern side of Donahue Street, just inside the current boundary of the shipyard property and now across the street from Mariner's Village. The memo says the "District Public Works Office is to allow the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory to use Building E-204 for storage of collateral of NRDL Building 351-A ...." Last year, Navy contractors found cesium contamination in the drainpipes of Building 351-A, according to the Navy's historical assessment.

Navy contractors also have found other new evidence of radiation on the base. For instance, Radiation Affairs Support Office Commander Lino Fragoso told the Restoration Advisory Board earlier this month that the Navy's contractors had discovered cesium and radium, both long-living radioisotopes, inside Building 253 on the shipyard. Contamination also was found on the roof, Fragoso said, likely because of isotopes passing through the ventilation system.

SF Weekly reported last year that former employees of the shipyard remembered Building 253 having been used as a staging area for equipment removed from ships contaminated in the atomic bomb blasts of Operation Crossroads, and that historical documents indicated that the bottom floor of the building was used to store equipment that was ready for disposal but "too hot" to mix with other salvage. Navy officials haven't interviewed the former employees quoted by SF Weekly.

The Navy's 2002 Historical Radiation Assessment said Building 253 was determined to be clean in a 1974 radiation survey, but designated the area for rescreening, using new radiological criteria. Navy contractors now are in the process of decontaminating the building, according to Fragoso.

The new discoveries of contamination are likely to push completion of a revised radiation assessment to the end of the year, which will further delay any transfer or development of the property.

City and Navy officials, along with community participants, hammered out an agreement last year that would govern the transfer of shipyard property. Among other things, the conveyance agreement requires a completed Historical Radiation Assessment and the blessing of state and federal environmental regulators before property can be transferred. The agreement is still awaiting Navy approval, however, and the amount of time needed for radiological cleanup at the base will not be known until the Navy's official assessment is finished.

"We learned a lot of lessons," says the Navy's DeMars. "The first [Historical Radiation Assessment] was rushed to meet a deadline. We should have delayed it and done a better, more thorough job. We're just telling people now that we have got to be given sufficient time to be sure about this."

The radiation assessment that DeMars describes as rushed was, according to the Navy itself, prepared over the course of five years, at a cost of $2 million.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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