San Francisco

San Francisco, EPA Fight Over Hunters Point Shipyard Radiation Cleanup

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When San Francisco gets control of the old Hunters Point Shipyard, some of the soil might still contain lingering levels of radiation, even though voters in the city passed a measure demanding a full cleanup.

For decades, the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has been slated for a sizable development. But first, the Navy had to deal with contamination from years of radiological testing and sandblasting of ships contaminated with radiation, an effort that has lasted decades.

With a new round of testing underway, the city soon will have to decide whether to accept the land if it’s in less than pristine condition.

Two decades ago, voters called for the site to be fully cleaned to the most rigorous standards. A stance recently reiterated by Shamann Walton, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“I also wanted to make it clear, that the number one goal for the shipyard has to be and should be 100% complete cleanup,” he said.

But in a memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the EPA, a top official with the agency overseeing the Navy’s cleanup effort, signals the EPA may allow the Navy to stop short of what the city considers “full cleanup.”

So, what does that mean? It means the Navy could turn the property over to San Francisco with what's known as "land use restrictions.”

Essentially, the EPA would say the land is safe to live on, as long as residents don’t dig too deep into their yards, or they cover the soil with concrete to protect them from the long term exposure to radiation.

In the memo to a public employee environmental watchdog group, known as "Peer," the EPA states its land use rules are designed to “ensure protection of human health but also to ensure the integrity of remedies in the long term.”

"They are not as protective as they could be. They are certainly not as protective as just removing the soil," said Jeff Ruch with the watchdog group Peer.

Ruch said the restrictions the EPA could impose like covering the site may only work in the short term.

“There’s no assurance that 10, 15 years from now, when the site has supposedly been declared clean that it will remain clean,” he said.

EPA said it has not made any formal decision on the matter.

There’s no date for when the site could be expected to be turned over to San Francisco, but it’s unclear at this point what will happen when that day comes, if the city refuses to accept the land because they consider it too contaminated to be used safely.

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