by Marie Harrison
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
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
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
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
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 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.