By David Kaplowitz


As the Blue Angels thundered overhead in the Navy’s annual Fleet Week in San Francisco, an underground fire, fueled by several toxic substances, burned at Hunter’s Point. The fire started on August 16. And it has awakened awareness of the issue of toxicity in general at Hunter’s Point.

Residents there have reported seeing yellow, orange, and green smoke. They have complained of a variety of illnesses, including asthma and other respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting, rashes, diarrhea, and insomnia.

And they say the Navy is to blame.

In the midst of Fleet Week, where, according to many spectators, the Navy and Marines “show their stuff” and “come together with the community,” 300 protesters gathered at Justin Herman Plaza and marched to Fisherman’s Wharf Friday evening, demanding that the Navy clean up the toxins left behind in Hunter’s Point.

“If they can bring it in, they can take it out,” said Olin Webb of the Community First Coalition, sponsors of the demonstration.

Michelle Henry-Ellis, a teacher in Bayview, said that since school started in early September—two weeks after the fire started—children have been sick.

“Kids are throwing up, have problems breathing. These kids are truly getting sick,” said Henry-Ellis. “And the Navy said they don’t even know how it started or even what’s burning.”

Kaaron Warren, a resident at the Aspen South Hills Apartments—the closest residences to the site of the fire—said that she has had respiratory problems, diarrhea, and migraine headaches. Her son—seven months old at the time the fire started—had “serious respiratory problems.”

Yovanda Dixon—another resident there who has had breathing problems as has her eight-year-old-son, John—is concerned for the neighborhood, which is made up of mostly lower-income residents.

“A lot of people don’t have medical (insurance)” said Dixon. “I’ve got to pay to go to the doctor.”

Public records from 1991-1992 indicate that hospitalization rates for asthma, congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes and emphysema were 138 per 10,000 in Bayview-Hunters Point—more than three times the state average.

“The Navy has totally ignored health concerns,” said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. “The number of kids with asthma is on the rise, and Bayview/Hunter’s Point has the highest rate of breast cancer in the Bay Area.”

The Hunter’s Point Annex of the Naval Shipyard has been an Environmental Protection Agency “SuperFund” site since 1989, meaning it is one of the “worst of the worst” toxic sites in the country.

The Navy acquired the land in 1940, and in 1942 began using it for “shipbuilding, repair, and maintenance,” according to EPA documents.

As a result, the ground and water in the area have high contamination rates.

According EPA documents, each of the five parcels of the base—Parcels A through E—are contaminated with pesticides, PCBs, petroleum hydrocarbons, metals, herbicides, base neutral acids, and inorganics, among other substances. The fire is located in Parcel E, which is less than 400 yards from the closest residences.

Other EPA documents reveal “paints, solvents, fuels, acids, bases, metals, and asbestos,” at the shipyard. The document refers to “benzene, PCBs, toluene, and phenols” in on-site ground water.

The document also states that “area surface waters are used for recreational activities, commercial navigation and fishing.”

“All the parcels have the same contaminants in them. The differences lie in the degree of contamination and sometimes the exact mix,” said Chris Shirley of ARC Ecology in San Francisco.

But in the landfill area in Parcel E where the fire broke out, no one—not even the Navy—is clear on what exactly lies beneath.

“What’s in there is anyone’s guess,” said Shirley.

“Coming together with the community” is just what the community has said the Navy isn’t doing.

“No more landfills! U.S. Navy pay your bills!” demonstrators shouted.

The Navy has admitted to mishandling both the current fire and of cleanup efforts in general, with respect to community involvement.

“Our communication has been poor,” said Captain Greg Buchanan, commanding officer of the Navy’s Engineering Field Activities West. “We are taking steps to improve that. We want to reestablish your trust.” Buchanan, dressed in uniform, spent about 15 minutes with the protesters at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The communication problem to which Buchanan referred was the two week lag after the fire started in informing area residents what was going on.

 “If you want to be involved in the community, you have to come to the community,” said Jesse Mason, a Hunter’s Point resident and community activist. “There has been no discussion—the community has been excluded.”

But when Buchanan glazed over, Commander Chuck McWhorter stepped in and said, “We were under the impression that you had a document for us to sign. The captain really can’t answer all these questions.”

The Navy has said a feasibility study will begin in 2002 on cleaning up the area. “In the long range, we would hope that it would be by 2005 that the total area of Hunter’s Point done and turned over to the city,” said Navy Public Affairs Officer Tom Pinard.

Pinard said the Navy hires firms that deal with environmental concerns—the Navy doesn’t do the cleanup itself. And before such work is contracted out, studies need to be done and approved by the EPA. “We’re moving as quickly as it’s practical to move,” said Pinard.

But Hunter’s Point residents still wonder why it will take so long when resident’s health is at risk.

“We’re talking about lives,” said Marie Harrison, candidate for Supervisor in District 10, which includes Hunter’s Point. “Look at the children running around. I don’t want to wait two years for a feasibility study.”

The Navy seems unwilling or incapable to look at the issue of toxicity in the area as a public health concern. Pinard was unable to comment on the Navy’s stance on the public health concerns raised by the community.

Based on the Navy’s responsiveness in the past—or lack thereof—residents aren’t too optimistic about its future handling of the site. But there may have been a small step on Saturday at Fisherman’s Wharf.

“The Navy has agreed to sit down with the community and discuss the shipyard,” according to Harrison, candidate for supervisor. “The goal is to have this within the next week or two. Hopefully they’ll stop ducking and dodging and admit ‘not only did we mess up, we really messed up.’”

No one knows how the fire started. And the Navy declared the fire extinguished three weeks ago. But they took that statement back, and have not since declared the fire defeated.

“From our scanning of (the area) from the surface and just below the surface, there is no apparent sign of any fire. Because of the intense sensitivity of it, it is not absolutely out,” said Pinard. “We are still testing to determine whether the fire is out.”

Visitors to the site on Saturday reported that the area has been smoothed over with dirt and saw no sign of the colored smoke that was seen several weeks ago. Inspectors were seen checking about 15 air monitoring devices scattered around the site.

Many Hunter’s Point residents are angry, and have recently been schooled in the term “environmental racism.” The fire brought to light the larger issue of toxicity in the area.

“If you take a map and look at toxic waste sites, they’re usually in places with people of color,” said Walter Johnson, Hunter’s Point resident since 1989.

Johnson said that his daughter complained of a rash just a few days after the fire started. He couldn’t say for sure that the fumes caused it, but it made him wonder.

“The fire has really woken me up,” said Johnson. “I don’t know what I’ve been breathing for the last 11 years.”

The city of San Francisco has motivation to want the site clean—development. And Proposition P, on November’s ballot, would make it “city policy to support a full clean up by the Navy of the Hunter’s Point Shipyard and allow unrestricted use of the site in the future.”

“The city needs the political will behind its policy,” said Ammiano. “They play fast and loose with how and where they’ve implemented it.”

Proposition P has no teeth behind it to enforce action by the Navy—it is simply advisory. But some believe that it does have the power to change the landscape in which the negotations take place.

“If Proposition P passes—as we believe it will—it will change the way we negotiate with the Navy. It will change the landscape,” said Shirley of ARC ecology.

Shirley said that the ninth of nine criteria in any EPA cleanup plan is “community acceptance.”

So while the Navy is attempting to push cleanup efforts toward “industrial standards,” Proposition P may make it unlikely that the community will accept such standards.

“Proposition P attempts to tell the Navy that their cleanup plan will only be accepted by the community if it meets residential standards,” said Shirley. “It challenges the Navy’s assumptions that the area will only be used for industrial purposes.”

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