Move the Shipyard’s toxic landfill out of here now!

by Marie Harrison
Director, ABCDpac

A week after the historic town hall meeting at Milton Meyer Gym with 300 people from the neighborhood right next door to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where a fire in an extremely toxic landfill has been smoldering for over a month, we are still awaiting an official answer to our question, “Is the fire out?” The words of community members that evening, “Just tell us yes or no, is it out?” still hang over the neighborhood like toxic smoke.

We just want to know if the fire is over so that we can start our offensive, to demand that the Navy stop all other work on this Shipyard and immediately remove the toxic landfill they buried and forgot until a fire made them stop and take notice. This community will not be a dumping ground for the Navy or anyone else any more.

This community has had it. We have already made up our minds to go after the Navy for not notifying us that there was a fire and that we were and possibly are still in danger from a fire that up to now they have not been able to put out.

The one thing we do know is that with all of the toxic material in the ground at Parcel E, and especially in the smoldering 46-acre toxic landfill there on the southern shore of the Shipyard that lies at the back door of the Aspen Apartments and off to the side of Mariner’s Village, everyone in the surrounding community and all of our schools and anywhere the wind blows — yes, these are the same famous winds that sports fans know from Candlestick — has good reason to be concerned about what this fire and the presence of that landfill is doing to their health.

As I’ve said before, I’m not a scientist. I deal in common sense and logic, coupled with a little respect and a need to know. We have a need to know, yet we have not been answered with logic or common sense. A lie shows no respect, so we won’t go there.

It’s in the midst of a crisis like this when we learn who our true friends are. Let me say that we owe a great deal of gratitude to Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Brad Benson of his staff for their quick response in organizing and hosting the meeting at Milton Meyer Gym and for bringing all of us together with the Navy, the EPA, state regulatory agencies, the City’s Redevelopment Agency, Health Department and Fire Department and environmental experts.

I also want to thank Supervisor Ammiano for having CityWatch, cable channel 26, record the meeting. As soon as possible, we intend to transcribe the videotape and publish as much of it as we can fit in the paper — so stay tuned to the Bay View. I want you to see why I was so proud of our people for standing up together that night — one community, indivisible, demanding liberty and justice for all.

Why were we not told?

Remember in the first official news of the fire, the Navy and the EPA said they hadn’t been notified until the fire had been burning for weeks? Well, I checked the transcript on the Internet of last month’s meeting, on Aug. 24, of the Restoration Advisory Board. Richard Mach, the Navy’s environmental coordinator for the Shipyard, chaired the meeting himself, and EPA and other regulatory officials were there. By then, the fire had been burning for eight days.

Lynn Brown, a long time Hunters Point resident, attended the meeting, and he raised the issue of the fire. Lynn works with Communities for a Better Environment and knows a lot about how dangerous the Shipyard Superfund site is.

“I’m here to talk about the fire that they had on Parcel E on Aug. 18,” he said. Alex Lantsberg of Arc Ecology and SAEJ, who is also a resident, added, “We saw black smoke and orange smoke burning for hours. So it definitely concerned a lot of folks.”

Lynn Brown continued: “This (fire) was really bad on the 18th. And I’d like to know, when are you guys going to notify the community on what was burning? And was the Water Board notified of this?

“The firemen started with the water on the fire, which went into the Bay, and then they put the foam on it to put it out. I don’t know how many gallons of foam they used to put it out, but it’s still smoking out there, you know.

“So I think we need some kind of way to alert the community when these things happen, ’cause like you say, what’s over there in Parcel C? What’s in D? We don’t know. And we were not notified. And some of that stuff gets into the air; and if you inhale it, you have cancer. So I’m asking the RAB members for some way to alert the community when these things occur.”

Joseph Joyce, the Navy’s deputy base closure manager for Hunters Point, provided a little information. He said, “We are not sure how it started, but they are in the process of doing an investigation to try to determine that. It was not part of a manufacturing process. It started in an open area that was not occupied. So there is an arson investigation going on. At the next meeting, if there's more information available, we can come in and report that and share it with this group.” Richard Mach added, “It was mostly grass fires, as I understand this.”

That’s the whole discussion. From this transcript, we know that as early as Aug. 24, the top Navy officials and the EPA and other agencies knew about the fire.

Yet it was a community resident who provided most of the information at this community meeting. Did the Navy explain that this “grass fire” was in a toxic landfill, probably the most poisonous part of the Shipyard? No. Was the Navy concerned enough about the health of the community to sample the air, soil and water? No, not until the EPA insisted they do so, and that was a week after this meeting.

Does this sound like a coverup? You tell me.

What is in the toxic landfill?

What is in the 46-acre landfill that, so far as we know, is still burning deep down underground? Chris Shirley, staff scientist at Arc Ecology, has been analyzing the reports that are now coming in from the Navy on the samples they took from the fire area.

She begins by saying that “actual contents of the landfill remain ill defined and largely unknown. This is because the Navy has conducted very little investigation to determine exactly what is in the landfill. The Navy deemed such information unnecessary because the Navy (and regulators) never seriously considered removing the landfill. Rather, the Navy wants to cap the landfill (cover it up).”

In introducing the sampling analysis, she notes, “Unexpected are the high concentration of lead, copper, and other heavy metals very near the surface of the landfill.” Here are the numbers from the Navy’s surface water samples: The lead they contain is over 631 times higher than the “trigger level” — that is, the danger point at which the Navy has to take action — copper is almost 19 times higher, chromium is almost 17 times higher, and arsenic is almost six times higher.

Where do we go from here?

Supervisor Ammiano said that he will be calling for a hearing and that he too, like most of us, is not satisfied with the way this fire has been handled so far.

Meanwhile, the Bay View is co-sponsoring, along with a long list of community and activist groups,  a rally for next Friday, Oct. 6, at 5 p.m., in Justin Herman Plaza at the end of Market Street across from the Ferry Building. Buses will be waiting at Third and Oakdale at 4:30 to take you there. Bring some signs if you can. But most important, bring your family and everyone you know.

The rally comes right at the height of Fleet Week, so the Navy will surely be listening. The candidates for president of the United States and commander in chief of the armed forces will be listening too. What do we want to tell them?

1)       This community has come together with one voice to say that we want the Shipyard all cleaned up and we want the toxic landfill out of here — all 46 acres of it. No, we are not willing to wait two years for the Navy to do a study and then ask the community what it thinks. We want Washington to enforce the laws; make it happen and now. It can be done.

2)       The Navy must utilize the community work force to assist in the cleanup. Many classes of students already have their hazardous materials training and their certificates in hand. We demand that the Navy put them to work right here right now.

3)       The Secretary of the Navy must obey the Base Closure Act by making the economic revitalization of our community a top priority during both the cleanup and the development of the Shipyard. That means jobs, contracts and ownership.

What if there’s an earthquake?

No disrespect intended, but I have been unable to find anything in writing to show me that the IT Corp., the Navy’s cleanup contractor, has the expertise to put this fire out or to deal with any other emergency. If they do, why then when they were already on site working didn’t they notify anyone about the fire when it started on the 16th of August? It seems to me that a month later is a month too late.

Now think about this from Daniel Meer, chief of the Federal Facilities Cleanup Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9, Superfund Division: He told us at the Milton Meyer Gym last week that they don’t know what all is down there in the landfill and it may be more dangerous to move it than to let it stay.

Bay View Technology Editor Maurice Campbell asked him later by email,  what if there is another big earthquake, much like the ’89 quake that tore up the Marina, which, like the Shipyard, is built mostly on Bay mud subject to liquefaction that knocked homes and businesses over like toys. It was unforgettable.

Mr. Meer emailed back: “I expect that the Navy would evaluate the possibility of a large earthquake with an epicenter near SF and what effect that might have if the landfill is left in place in the same way they would evaluate the possible impacts of excavation of the landfill if the landfill is removed.”

Now think about this: What we have here at the Shipyard is a toxic landfill that has already been damaged by the fire. Now suppose we have a major earthquake. That’s one good reason why we can’t let the Navy put off removing it for two years, until 2002. I have no death wish; do you?

What do you think? Let me know. After all, it is about your wellbeing.

The way I see it, we the people of Bayview Hunters Point have the knowhow and the will to do the cleanup and do it right and do it now. And we have the Navy at the wrong end of this equation. It’s time we take control. As Sen. Ted Kennedy said, let’s not support policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

I’ve talked with quite a few community folks who are already looking for legal help, because they have no trust in the Navy or this City to look out for their wellbeing. To this I say, you know just what to do, so go for it. I’ll be there to help when needed as always.

To the Navy I say, it’s not about money all the time, and in this case it surely is not. It’s about respect for the lives you hold in the palm of your hand. You made the decision not to send out even a word of warning. Wrong, wrong, wrong! It won’t happen again. Not if we can help it.