San Francisco

San Francisco Supervisors Kick Tetra Tech Official Out of Hearing on Hunters Point Cleanup Scandal

Supervisor Malia Cohen says public trust has been "completely eroded" while Tetra Tech stands by its work

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors held a public hearing Monday on the radiation cleanup scandal at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Representatives from the U.S. Navy, Environmental Protection Agency and a state regulatory agency answered questions from supervisors. But an official from Tetra Tech, the Navy contractor accused of botching the radiation cleanup, was kicked out of the hearing. 

“I’m not going to waste our time with this,” Supervisor Jane Kim said.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes Hunters Point, called the hearing and had apparently asked Tetra Tech’s chief engineer to explain the events that led to the Navy losing confidence in the company’s radiation test data. But Tetra Tech’s attorney – who has been working on the Hunters Point cleanup issue for just a few months – showed up instead. That didn’t sit well with supervisors, who refused to hear his testimony.

“I was prepared to answer questions that the supervisors posed,” Preston Hopson, the company’s vice president and general counsel said in the hallway just outside the hearing room. “Unfortunately they did not give us that opportunity; they chose to grandstand.”

The supervisors tried to piece together a timeline of events involving the radiation cleanup saga on the shipyard, a superfund site that’s slated for parks, shops and tens of thousands of homes. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has been uncovering the chain of events for four years.

In 2014, NBC Bay Area exposed that two years earlier the Navy found discrepancies in some of Tetra Tech’s soil sample data. The company later learned two workers took fake soil samples in an attempt to pass off areas of the shipyard as clean when they weren’t. Tetra Tech took corrective action and cleaned up the areas that needed further remediation. The former employees pleaded guilty last year to falsifying cleanup records. Earlier this month, they were sentenced to prison.

Then in 2016, a former worker came forward to NBC Bay Area, alleging the fraud was much more widespread. It’s a claim the company denies. But the whistleblower’s accusations prompted the Navy in 2017 to re-examine all of Tetra Tech’s radiation data.

“We’ve learned more information that led us to pause and halt and do a comprehensive evaluation,” Laura Duchnak, the Navy’s head of base cleanups told supervisors.

In January, the Navy announced nearly half of the company’s data had inconsistencies, and some of it is likely fraudulent. When asked how Tetra Tech could explain that, Hopson said the Navy was looking at preliminary data.

“The information you cite is based on draft reports,” he said. “It does not reach any conclusions in these draft reports.”

But the Navy lost confidence in Tetra Tech. Officials decided to retest the parts of the shipyard where Tetra Tech performed radiological work. The Navy expects to have a plan to retest the first parcel, Parcel G, within a month, Duchnak said.

Tetra Tech stands by its work and even offered to pay for an independent third-party – chosen by the Navy – to resample the shipyard. Hopson told NBC Bay Area the same thing after he was dismissed from the hearing.

The Navy said it will retest areas of the shipyard where Tetra Tech’s radiological data was used to determine whether the land is clean, and that the company conducted radiological work at other locations that will not be retested because subsequent activities by other contractors proved the areas are clean.

But community groups again called for a complete retesting of the shipyard. They also want the Navy to test Parcel A – the area of the shipyard where people are already living in condos. The land was transferred to the city in 2004.

The Navy says Parcel A is safe; there wasn’t any radiation contamination there to begin with. Cohen called on the Navy to test the land anyway. San Francisco congresswoman Nancy Pelosi also urged the U.S. EPA to test Parcel A.

“This has been a decades-long cleanup process, and there is still no end in sight,” Cohen said. “Public trust has been completely eroded by a terribly opaque process. The Navy needs to do the right thing.”

Duchnak said any radiation contamination that existed at Hunters Point is low-level and does not pose a danger to the public. But many people who live near the shipyard say they’re not convinced.

Seven whistleblowers have come forward alleging misconduct by Tetra Tech – claims the company denies. NBC Bay Area first reported accusations from whistleblowers that workers tampered with radiation detection machines and that radioactive soil may have gone right back into the ground at the shipyard. The company says those claims are untrue.

If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email or call 888-996-TIPS. Follow Liz Wagner on Facebook and Twitter

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