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Three California members of Congress are demanding information from the Navy about radioactive materials at Hunters Point Shipyard

Wednesday, May 23 2001
When three members of Congress write a letter, asking the executive branch of the U.S. government to answer questions raised by the press, it usually makes the news. When three members of Congress from California write the secretary of the Navy, asking him to answer questions raised by SF Weekly, they get the top of my column.

Close to my deadline for this issue, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi released a letter that she and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer signed. The letter, addressed to acting Navy Secretary Robert B. Pirie Jr., is a straightforward piece of work. It notes that constituents of these three members of Congress are concerned about revelations in "a recent press account" about nuclear research at the Hunters Point Shipyard, and asks the Navy, which is in the process of cleaning up the shipyard, to answer some questions that constituents have raised.

I could paraphrase the questions, but why bother? They speak for themselves:

- Has the Navy done a comprehensive historical survey of documents to determine what and where radiation might have been used at the shipyard?

- Based on a comprehensive historical review of documents, has a comprehensive radiation survey been performed that analyzed for all known or reasonably suspected substances and in all suspected locations?

- In August of 2000, the Multiagency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual (MARSSIM) was revised. In the Navy's survey and site investigation did the Navy follow these MARSSIM protocols?

- The press account specifically mentions Buildings 113, 224, 253, 354, and 539. Have these buildings been investigated/ remediated? Has the possibility of a leach field containing radioactive substances around Building 707 been investigated?

- Has the Navy investigated the allegation that, during sandblasting operations, radioactive sandblast waste was deposited over large areas of the shipyard and bay lands?

The letter also urges the Navy to further investigate the shipyard landfill and bay-bottom sediments around the shipyard "to resolve legitimate concerns about the presence of radiation hazards." If you've been reading SF Weekly for the last month or so, you know those "concerns" are, indeed, "legitimate."

When SF Weekly staff writer Lisa Davis mentioned, last spring, that she was interested in nuclear research and disposal at the Hunters Point Shipyard, both of us knew a persuasive story on the subject would require significant reporting. There are, after all, few better ways for a journalist to get tagged as a wacky conspiracy theorist than to write poorly sourced stories on nuclear contamination.

Of course, I had no idea, in March 2000, that the project would take more than a year, and I hesitate to say what I might have done, had I known how much time would ultimately be spent. (I am not poor-mouthing here -- SF Weekly is quite a successful enterprise, and its owners are genuinely committed to quality journalism -- but a year of a writer's time is an enormous investment for us. Off the top of my head, I'd suggest it would be similar to the San Francisco Chronicle assigning 30 reporters to a yearlong project.)

If I was not chomping at the bit to take a writer offline for a year, I did encourage Ms. Davis to begin the painful, plodding process of gaining access to and reviewing boxes and boxes of documents previously squirreled away at the National Archives in San Bruno. I encouraged her, and, as disquieting documents piled up, continued to encourage her, for a simple reason: Exploring the reasonable possibility that nuclear materials had been mishandled in a major urban area is the type of thing that good journalists do, just because they are journalists.

Weekly readers know the results of Ms. Davis' two-part investigation. Her tenacity unearthed previously classified documents that reveal an alarming tale of nuclear carelessness. As Davis has laid out in enormously documented detail, the Navy is attempting to transfer to the city of San Francisco, for use as a residential and commercial neighborhood, a shipyard that the Navy knew had played host to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, a top-secret facility that migrated through many buildings at the shipyard between 1946 and 1969, and that handled significant amounts of plutonium and other extremely long-lived and dangerous radioactive substances.

The records Davis unsealed show that, among other things, NRDL scientists oversaw the dumping of huge amounts of contaminated sand and acid into San Francisco Bay; spread radioactive material on and off the shipyard, as if it were fertilizer, to practice decontamination; burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler, discharging the smoke into the atmosphere; sold radioactive ships as scrap metal; and sought permission to dump 1,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste into San Francisco Bay, to study how tidal action would dilute the radioactivity. (The documents do not say whether the experiment and follow-on plans to dump 1,000 gallons of waste every day were consummated.)

Meanwhile, a team of Monterey Institute of International Studies researchers was commissioned by SF Weekly to look at the Navy's pitifully limited plan for finding and dealing with nuclear contamination at Hunters Point -- and the researchers found it entirely, ludicrously insufficient.

A second installment of Davis' investigation showed that significantly more nuclear material was dumped at an undersea site in the Farallon Islands, located at the center of a major commercial fishery just 30 miles off San Francisco, than the Navy has previously acknowledged. Davis' research also showed that the government has failed to monitor that site, despite repeated assertions that monitoring would take place, and despite repeated recommendations from consultants that the site be monitored.

The reaction during the first week or so after Davis' series broke was, let us say, muted.

But then Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who represents the district that includes the shipyard, announced she would sponsor legislation to clean each piece of the former base to "the highest standard," before any piece is transferred from Navy to city control. Such legislation would effectively kneecap a transfer agreement, signed last year by the Navy and Mayor Willie Brown, that allowed supposedly clean areas of the former base to move to city control while the Navy cleaned the "dirty" areas.

Now, Feinstein, Boxer, and Pelosi, whose district includes the shipyard, have asked the Navy at least some of the right questions in regard to radiation and the proposed cleanup and transfer of the former naval base to civilian control. I don't make a habit of thanking public officials for doing their jobs, but I must say I appreciate Pelosi, Boxer, and Feinstein for taking the time to consider a serious work of journalism seriously, and to respond in a reasonable, responsible way.

Sometime in the next five years, if the facts warrant it, I'd like to be able to extend the same sort of performance-based thanks to Navy Secretary Pirie.

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John Mecklin


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