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Slow Sailing 

With prodding from Congress, plans to transfer Hunters Point Shipyard land to San Francisco are inching along

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
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Navy brass showed up at City Hall last week to renew talks about transferring property at the former Hunters Point Shipyard to the city -- a sign that the Navy may be feeling congressional pressure to move the deal along.

Progress has moved at a snail's pace toward the transfer of property at the former naval shipyard, which sits on 500 acres of bayshore land in Hunters Point that city officials would like very much to develop. In fact, San Francisco has contracted to build about 1,800 new homes on the site, along with retail and commercial buildings, all ringed by a promenade along the water. But before the city can take ownership, the Navy has to clean up the six parcels of land (A through F), which are collectively a 100-year-old toxic stew of chemicals, heavy metals, and radiation.

In the early 1990s, Congress approved a plan for the 500 acres to be, essentially, given to the city after they were cleaned up. Since that time, however, various parts of the massive cleanup have stalled, restarted, and stalled again as state and city agencies and environmental watchdogs such as San Francisco's ARC Ecology have balked and sued over what they consider a lax cleanup operation.

"One of the things we've been telling the military is that a partnering process works a hell of a lot better than an adversarial process," says Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, which has sued the Navy repeatedly over its cleanup operations.

The Navy originally approached city officials more than four years ago looking to enter into what is known as an early or "dirty" transfer of the property. In essence, that meant Navy and San Francisco officials would agree on a cost estimate to clean up the property, after which the Navy would give the property and the cleanup funds to San Francisco, which would take on the responsibility of cleaning up the land.

The problem was, Navy and city officials couldn't come close to agreeing on an amount of money necessary for cleanup -- at one point they were nearly $100 million apart. As that deal died, however, another was born.

In an unprecedented political move, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, along with the secretaries of defense and of the Navy and then-President Bill Clinton, hammered out a compromise. The end result was a memorandum of agreement in late 2000, in which the Navy agreed to spend at least $120 million to clean up the main portion of the base (Parcels B, C, and D) to a certain standard and a depth of 10 feet.

But the Navy is already behind schedule for completing the cleanup and transfer, and, given that federal law and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, actually govern the Navy and its cleanup operation, city officials have virtually no power to enforce their agreement.

That's not to say that San Francisco is without any cards to play. The city can refuse to accept any of the parcels of land the Navy offers up for transfer, which will ultimately be a problem for the military brass. Congress has put increasing pressure on the military to clear old, dirty land off the books, here and elsewhere, and could hold up both money and base closure plans if it's not done soon.

More recently, San Francisco's congressional delegation has put even more pressure on the Navy brass to clean up its mess in San Francisco. Feinstein, now chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, secured $50 million for cleanup work at Hunters Point Shipyard this year. The legislation included the caveat that the secretary of defense must report to Congress with a master plan for the cleanup this month.

No plan has been reported yet.

Neither has the Navy finished a Historical Radiation Assessment, which was due last year, to sketch out exactly what and where radiation was used at the base and how it will be cleaned up.

Navy representatives were unable to comment on the matter for this story.

City officials quietly say they might consider an early transfer for some cleaner parts of the shipyard, but not now. The Navy would first have to complete at least most of the process of investigating the site and presenting various scenarios for cleaning it up, including a cost analysis, before the city is willing to deal.

Parcel A, which was largely used for military housing and is the least polluted part of the site, is pretty much ready for transfer. But without some kind of ironclad deal in place for the shipyard as a whole, the city is not likely to take possession.

Meanwhile, Parcel E, which encompasses the dirtiest end of the shipyard, including a landfill with contents that remain a mystery, could be a sticking point for any transfer deal. Insiders observe that, without a complete analysis of what is at that site, city officials are not likely to sign off on any deal.

"You can't develop unless you've got the parcels there cleaned up," says Bloom. "Is the Navy going to be flexible enough to give the city something that the community can live with?"

About The Author

Lisa Davis

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