Critics Call Plan to Scan for Radiation Near New Hunters Point Homes Inadequate

The state health department released its plan to scan part of the shipyard where people are already living, but critics say testing doesn’t go far enough.

The California Department of Public Health released a plan Thursday to perform radiation scans on a part of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard where people are already living in new condos.

The survey will include the areas of the parcel in question, known as Parcel A, that are accessible to the public, including open spaces and uncovered portions of the ground with no concrete or asphalt, according to CDPH.

Most of the 900-acre shipyard is still undeveloped. It’s undergoing a cleanup after decades of radiation contamination. But federal and state officials have always maintained that Parcel A, the area currently occupied with residents, was never contaminated with radiation and doesn’t pose a health risk. They say previous scans of the area confirmed that.

But public pressure from residents, community members and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors forced health officials to give Parcel A another look, in light of a radiation cleanup scandal on other parts of the shipyard.

“We don’t have a preconceived conclusion here that it’s all going be fine,” said Dr. Mark Starr, CDPH’s Deputy Director for Environmental Health. “We’re doing a scan and see what we find and in the course of doing a scan if we do come across something that sets our devices off so to speak, an elevated level, we will do a more intensive scan of that location.”

But many critics say the work plan isn’t good enough.

They note there is no proposal to actually collect soil samples and test them in a lab. Starr said that wouldn’t be effective in this case and taking soil samples underground would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Instead, the plan calls for gamma radiation surveys. Radiation emits alpha, beta or gamma particles. Starr said any alpha or beta particles would have been buried in the ground, underneath layers of dirt and asphalt. Alpha and beta particles don’t penetrate, but gamma particles do, he said.

“The gamma scan is the best tool for this purpose to do a big area like that,” Starr said.

But critics, including Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy expert and recently retired director of the Program for Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the Parcel A plan is a joke.

“This is essentially a sham, not a scan,” he said. “The scans won’t be able to see anything we should be looking for.”

Hirsch said radionuclides of concern at the shipyard, such as plutonium and strontium-90 – elements linked to cancer – cannot be detected by gamma scans. He also said gamma scans can’t detect gamma-emitting radionuclides like cesium at levels that would require it be cleaned up.

The EPA first conducted radiation scans in 2002 when officials drove a scanner van over the area to test for radiation. The results “were found to be within levels attributable to naturally occurring sources,” according to Navy records. In 2012, federal officials conducted aerial scans using equipment that can detect radiological contamination. Soil samples were never taken at Parcel A.

Hirsch said the scans were inadequate then, and the new scans will be inadequate, too. 

After the Navy learned that Tetra Tech, the contractor hired to clean up radiation on the still-undeveloped part of the shipyard, misrepresented and possibly faked some radiation data, it hired a team of consultants to review the company’s work. The evaluation did not implicate Parcel A in potential fraudulent activity, Navy officials have said.

According to the Navy, Tetra Tech scanned one building on that parcel for radiological activity, and demolished it. Federal officials validated the cleanup. The soils associated with that building are now under a layer of asphalt in the new roadways leading into the shipyard, the Navy said.

Tetra Tech stands by its work on all parts of the shipyard. Two former employees were sentenced to prison in May for falsifying radiation data at Hunters Point. Tetra Tech supports the actions taken by the Department of Justice but denies allegations that other employees faked the radiation cleanup.

The radiological scans of Parcel A are scheduled to begin on July 16. Some critics are furious that authorities have failed to let members of the public give input about the work plan, though Starr said the department will take informal feedback.

Click here to see the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit’s series of reports about the Hunters Point Shipyard saga dating back to 2014. 

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