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Toxic Fire at Hunters Point Shipyard
Fire down below!

by Marie Harrison 
Director, ABCDpac

A fire is burning at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and it has been burning for nearly a month, beginning as a brush fire on Aug. 16. We haven't told you about it before, because the Navy neglected to tell anyone - not the community, not the press, not even the Environmental Protection Agency. And the fire continues to smolder, because the Navy doesn't know how to put it out.

A few people had spotted the fire and were worried. "I could see it from my children's bedroom and my own room. It wasn't like any fire I've seen before. It was green smoke and yellow-orange," said one neighborhood resident. "Why hasn't someone from the Navy come out or even gone on TV and told us something? Don't we have the right to know?"

We know now that the fire is smoldering underground in a 46-acre landfill full of some of the most dangerous toxins in this toxic-laden Shipyard, a federal Superfund site that the Navy is obligated to clean up so that people can safely live and work there when it is transferred to the City and resumes its major role in Black history. The Shipyard is what brought thousands of African Americans to San Francisco during World War II to build the ships that won the war.

San Francisco was a segregated city then, with a Black population of only 5,000, restrictive covenants keeping Blacks out of almost all housing and a generally whites-only job market - except at the Shipyard. Settling initially in the Hunters Point barracks provided for Shipyard workers, Blacks saved their money and bought homes, making Bayview Hunters Point both a predominantly Black neighborhood and the part of San Francisco with the highest rate of home ownership.

We put down roots so deep that today, even while gentrification is trying to drive out all but the rich from San Francisco, most of our people so far have remained unmovable. One of the incentives that makes us fight to stay here is our determination to clean up, own and control the future of the 500-acre Shipyard.

Some officials and some of the media are minimizing the fire's danger. Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, medical director for occupational and environmental health for the City's Health Department, told the Bay View that residents shouldn't worry about airborne pollution because "the prevailing wind blows toward the Bay." Yet Bay View photos (on page 12) reveal wind indicators, or wind "socks," that show the wind is blowing some of the time straight toward the residents on the hill.

Neither the federal nor the City firefighters knew, as they tried for three weeks to drown the fire with water, that water can make the toxins more volatile and dangerous. Nor, evidently, did they realize that by flooding the landfill just a few yards from the shoreline, they are washing heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides and other toxins into the Bay, where they poison the fish and the people who catch and eat the fish. Surely these officials know that we who live in Bayview Hunters Point already are plagued with some of the highest rates of cancer and asthma on earth.

"Shipyard Fire Poses No Risk, Officials Say" is the headline in this morning's Chronicle. Yet at the end of the story, the presence in the landfill of "glow-in-the-dark radium dials taken from scrapped submarines" and "chlorine gas canisters" is acknowledged.

Although Navy officials said today at a press conference at the Shipyard that air samples showed nothing dangerous, Channel 2 reported today that lab analysis found "one carcinogen measured 17 times" the safe level. The EPA's Claire Trombadore told the Bay View that no sampling had been done until the Navy belatedly notified the EPA of the fire on Aug. 31, and the EPA asked the Navy to set up monitoring stations and collect air, soil and groundwater samples.

It was also the EPA, which announced today it is researching what penalties it can impose on the Navy, that told the Navy to notify residents of the fire and the dangers it poses. "Only after EPA's request did the Navy release a fact sheet to the public," says an angry letter the EPA sent Monday to the Navy. The fact sheet was distributed Friday to a few residents. The letter continues, "It is the Navy's responsibility to provide fire protection and emergency response services at the Shipyard to ensure that tenants and local residents are not exposed to any hazardous substances from the Navy's facility."

The Navy continues to overlook the best way to notify residents: this Bay View paper, which is delivered weekly to every door in the neighborhood. Only the EPA has responded to our questions. Although the Navy's spokesman promised to answer them, the questions we emailed to the Navy, the Mayor and the City's Commission on the Environment have not been answered.

The Navy invited all the major media to a press conference at the Shipyard this morning at 10:00, and over a half dozen TV trucks showed up along with all the daily newspapers in the region. But no one from the community was invited. Activists heard about it at the last minute, notified us five minutes before it began, and we attended without an invitation.

Environmental justice activists and researchers - some of the folks I worked with when I was doing that kind of work - have been busy, and we've learned and relearned a lot in the past few days. We know that the landfill that's burning was created between 1958 and 1974 when the Navy filled a Bay inlet with Shipyard waste, dumping 1 million cubic yards of debris in the inlet. Chris Shirley of Arc Ecology says the landfill contains 21,000 gallons of liquid wastes, including used solvents, paint sludge, oils and greases; 26 tons of paint scrapings, most containing lead; plus asbestos, radium and chlorine.

Bay View Technology Editor Maurice Campbell put his impressive search skills to work on the Internet and found much information. An extensive study from 1994 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Public Health Service, reports that agency's effort to find people who had worked at the landfill and learn how their exposure to toxins like PCBs and lead had affected their health. They couldn't do it, however, the report says, "because all personnel records from the period when the shipyard was active have been archived and, according to the Navy, can not be retrieved."

The ATSDR study also reveals the locations of hundreds of "radioactive point sources," most in or near the landfill. This radiation is left over from the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory that operated at the Shipyard from 1946 until 1969, decontaminating and disposing of ships that had returned from nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. Animal research was also performed there - all in the area of the landfill that is still burning as I write this.

I know that we have the right to know all there is to know about the fire at the Shipyard, but my problem is that all the people who should have informed us act as if they don't know anything themselves. I hope they can figure out how to find some experts soon.

At the press conference this morning, we were told by the Navy that they had been sampling the air for about five days and that the community was not at risk. But they did not say whether we were at risk during the two weeks before they started taking samples, and they did not say what the groundwater or soil sampling came up with.

They did not say anything about who is responsible for notifying the public or what part the City should play in notifying the public if the Navy doesn't. If the EPA is monitoring the Navy and overseeing the cleanup work being done by IT Corp., why did they not know about the fire until now?

When will an emergency response team be posted at the Shipyard? The people of Bayview Hunters Point are definitely worth saving and protecting.

And I want to know what is happening to all that water that was put into the ground, where did it go and how much damage is it doing. Is it being detoured to the Southeast Sewage Plant that is already overflowing? Or is it just being allowed to go straight into the Bay?

After seeing how an underground fire can cause the cap over the landfill to crack, I can't believe the Navy is really considering pouring another concrete cap over the landfill. But that's what they are telling the press.

I hope the mayor doesn't still think he and the Navy can cap their way to an early turnover of the Shipyard. An article in the May 24 Examiner reported "the mayor's suggestion that one of the most toxic areas be capped with a parking lot.

" What we've learned already from this fire is that we're more opposed than ever to any capping, and we want the entire landfill removed. It was clear at the meeting last night of the Citizens' Advisory Committee for the Shipyard that the community is more united than ever. Now will our officials start to listen to us, or will they choose to wait until things get so bad we have to go to court?

I hope to see every one of you at the meeting this Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. in the Milton Meyer Gym on Kiska Road and at the next RAB meeting on Thursday, Sept. 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bayview Police Station on Williams Ave.

I also hope I can count on your support for Proposition P on the Nov. 7 ballot that lets all of San Francisco tell the Navy we won't accept anything less than the entire Shipyard cleaned to the highest residential standards.

It's clear that the Redevelopment Agency still wants Blacks out of San Francisco - if you doubt it, check who they're marketing the Shipyard to on their website. (While you're on the web, check my website, where we've posted all the information we've gathered about the Shipyard - and a whole lot more.)

Though our neighborhood is being attacked from all sides by three Superfund sites, two power plants and a sewage treatment plant, plus poverty, unemployment, redlining and gentrification, we intend to stay right here and to use our own plan for real community ownership of the Shipyard. The Shipyard, where we built America's liberty ships, will yet be our ticket to liberation in America.

                                                          Marie Harrison © 2000