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Death and courage at the Hunters Point Shipyard

April 26, 2018

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD

Thousands of workers head home after a hard day’s work at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in about 1943.

While there has been much focus on the courage and achievements of women, I want to share with you a story about men. Men like the hundreds of men you know and have ever known. Your brother, father, lover, mentor or boss. Courageous and heroic men who embrace you every day. Men doing their jobs, protecting their families and enriching their communities.

Our story begins on any weekday morning in the mid 1940s, when thousands of men, migrants from the American South to “Frisco,” converged upon the gates of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard on their way to work. To do their jobs building and repairing ships for the biggest employer in the San Francisco Bay Area during the war time economic boom.

By 1908, the San Francisco Drydock, operating at the shipyard, had become “the world’s greatest shipping yard.” That year President Theodore Roosevelt ordered his “Great White Fleet” of 23 battleships to report to Hunters Point for service and repair.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy acquired the San Francisco Shipyard from Bethlehem Steel Dry Docks and renamed it the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. According to “A Day’s Work: Hunters Point Shipyard Workers 1940-1945,” this “shipbuilding behemoth” provided 18,500 jobs at the peak of World War II fueled by federal investment in shipbuilding and repair.

This sign at the Hunters Point Shipyard warns the public that it is undergoing “Superfund Site Cleanup” and is dangerous.

The shipyard radically altered the demographic landscape of the city by increasing the African American population from 5,000 to 32,000 by 1945. The Third Street Corridor became a bustling urban center. The barrack-like dormitories constructed for shipyard workers became overcrowded family units by 1944 when the San Francisco Housing Authority was assigned their oversight. By 1980 the African American population in Bayview Hunters Point reached a peak of 79 percent.

The Navy closed the shipyard in 1974, but the conversion of the base to civilian use was delayed by the presence of numerous contaminants, including PCBs, toxic metals, pesticides, radionuclides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. A Superfund site is a site on the National Priorities List (NPL) with known or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.

Designated a federal Superfund site in 1989, the shipyard was heavily contaminated by radioactive and toxic waste from decades of military and industrial use. Part of the shipyard was used by the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory for over two decades. Ships exposed to atom bomb tests were decontaminated there and research on the effects of radiation were conducted on the site.

In 2002, then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and US Navy Secretary Gordon England sign legislation on the Hunters Point and Treasure Island naval bases as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi watch.

Fast forward to December 2004. San Francisco Department of Public Health data identified the leading causes of total years of life lost in Bayview Hunters Point to include a host of cancers including lung, trachea and bronchial cancer. African Americans comprised over 47 percent of the population in BVHP.

On Dec. 14, 2004, Parcel A of the decommissioned Hunters Point Shipyard was transferred to the City and County of San Francisco for residential development amidst conflict, uproar, corruption and raucous debate. The Hunters Point Shipyard environmental findings and redevelopment measures included 14 items and nine ordinances passed 9-2 by the Board of Supervisors with severely curtailed public comment.

Before homebuilding began in July of 2005 for 1,200 planned housing units, Lennar hired a subcontractor, Gordon N. Ball Inc., to perform the 30-foot excavation of the hillside overlooking Parcel A, home to thousands of residents living in low income public housing. [Lennar cut the hill down on the shipyard side of the fence to create a grade separation, a barrier separating the poor people, mostly Black, on the hill from the new neighborhood they were creating for much more affluent people who they hoped would buy their condos in the shipyard. – ed.]

The environmental firm CH2M Hill was contracted to monitor asbestos levels in the dust. If asbestos reached unsafe levels during excavation of the hillside a mandatory work shutdown was required by law. The monitors failed repeatedly to detect the toxic dust exceedences, and many believed they had been deliberately turned off.

Chris Carpenter and his family

“I wanted to do the right thing as far as expose the company of their wrongdoings. What I’ve learned from this is that no one cares about our community. They were exposing us to asbestos without any warning, and they didn’t care,” Christopher Carpenter was quoted as saying, in “Toxic Terror in San Francisco,” published in The Final Call Jan. 29, 2008.

Chris Carpenter was just doing his job working on former shipyard Parcel A that fateful day in 2006 when he and fellow workers were sent home following a work shutdown due to dangerous concentrations of asbestos detected in dust generated by the grading of the Hunters Point hillside. Carpenter could have just gone home – like dozens of other workers – but instead he notified Minister Christopher Muhammad of Muhammad University of Islam (MUI) when he saw children playing outdoors adjacent to the worksite.

MUI relocated to Kiska Road on the hilltop overlooking the shipyard in 2002 and by the hot summer of 2005 thick toxic dust began enveloping the school yard. Children complained of breathing problems, eye swelling, nose bleeds and skin rashes. Not until October 2006, after filing a lawsuit against Lennar developers and its contractor, Gordon Ball, did the community learn the construction was generating dangerously high levels of asbestos and particulates.

Chris Carpenter in the hospital being treated for Stage 4 Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma, a very rare cancer never before seen in an African American – he believed exposure to toxins at the shipyard was the cause.

Chris Carpenter was terminated from his job in 2006 following a physical altercation with a supervisor who learned he had violated the expected code of silence and notified the surrounding community of the dangers posed by the hillside grading and toxic dust exposures. Hailed a hero of the Bayview Hunters Point environmental justice movement, Carpenter went on to establish a successful business to provide for his wife and children.

On Feb. 2, 2015, attorney Robin Greenwald of Weitz & Luxenberg, a New York environmental law and consumer protection firm, traveled to San Francisco to represent Christopher Carpenter, who faced imminent death from a rare cancer he believed resulted from his unprotected exposure to residual toxins present in shipyard soils. Lymphoma is a cancer that develops in the lymphatic system and Stage 4 is the most advanced stage.

On March 6, 2016, Carpenter died a painful and agonizing death of Stage 4 Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma that had spread throughout his body – a cancer never before reported in an African American. The erection of a monument at the shipyard to commemorate the heroism and courage of Christopher Carpenter has been proposed.

Gary McIntyre was just doing his job as an MIT trained veteran construction executive hired in 2004 as project manager for Lennar’s Hunters Point project. One of three high level African American executives working for Lennar, McIntyre developed hair loss, skin changes and cardiorespiratory symptoms performing field duties during the hillside grading. His supervisors laughed at him in a meeting and according to deposition statements, his doctor prescribed an inhaler for breathing problems he suffered as a result of his exposure to toxic dust in 2006.

Lennar executives Gary McIntyre and Clementine Clarke are flanked by their attorneys, Angela Alioto, left, and Joshua Baxter, right, representing them as whistleblowers about dangerous asbestos dust exposure. Asbestos at the shipyard is present not only in old buildings but the area’s bedrock is serpentine, the rock asbestos is found it. Lennar’s grading raised huge clouds of asbestos-laden dust, though all dust generated at the shipyard was supposed to be suppressed with water. It wasn’t. – Photo: Michael Macor, SF Chronicle

McIntyre joined Clementine Clark and administrative assistant Ceola Richardson, in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in March of 2007 alleging Lennar violated state law in retaliating against them for questioning the safety of the dust generated by the Parcel A excavation site. Represented by attorney Angela Alioto, the three employees offered evidence that after heavy grading of the hillside began in 2006, Lennar refused to shut down, even when monitoring devices showed the asbestos count was triple the state allowance.

Attorney Alioto accused Lennar of environmental racism, stating in a SF Chronicle article, “The firm thought it would escape responsibility for pollution problems because the neighbors included poor people and racial minorities. Case settled! McIntyre went on to serve as construction manager for Caltrain and BART but is rumored to be in failing health.

Minister Christopher Muhammad was just minding his business and doing a good job protecting his family, his community and his ministry in 2006 when Parcel A worker Chris Carpenter alerted him to the dangers posed to children playing outdoors exposed to toxic dust in concentrations five times greater than work shutdown levels. That notification between two courageous men set into motion a cascade of events that mushroomed in 2018 to be what is now being called ‘the greatest case of eco fraud in US history.”

The fiery Minister Christopher Muhammad – Photo: John Han, Fog City Journal

Minister Christopher put his reputation, his profession and possibly his life on the line as documented in KQED’s 2016 review of federal court filings and 3,000 pages of documents obtained from the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (OCII). Court transcripts reveal disturbing information about business relationships between Lennar Urban and individuals under FBI investigation.

While court filings do not conclusively prove a plot to harm Minister Christopher was ever acted upon, according to a sentencing memo, former School Board President Keith Jackson was paid $496,000 by Lennar in June of 2010 to meet with crime boss and suspected murderer Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow on behalf of Lennar to help “resolve the conflict” over the public health dispute with the Nation of Islam at the Hunters Point project.

Jackson ultimately pled guilty to racketeering in federal court and was sentenced to nine years in prison in February 2016. Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was sentenced to life in prison for racketeering and murder in August of 2016. A federal court convicted Chow in January of 2016 of operating a racketeering enterprise and ordering the murder of its previous leader, Allen Leung in 2006.

George Donald Porter, the neighborhood dad who told silly jokes, and his daughter, Ahimsa Porter Sumchai

Ray Roberson is the most unlikely hero of this story. We don’t know much about him except that he was doing a poor job as a Tetra Tech radiation control technician collecting soil samples on radiation contaminated parcels at the shipyard. In 2012 Tetra Tech was forced to conduct an internal investigation of itself after Navy computers detected 2,500 fraudulent soil samples collected at 20 radiation contaminated sites from 2008 to 2012. It was a highly orchestrated activity suggesting just about everyone around Roberson was doing a poor job!

Radiation control technicians (RCT) are high demand certified environmental, health and safety professionals who command an annual salary over $90,000 with advanced training and senior level experience. When Roberson collected radiation contaminated soil samples at the shipyard, by protocol he signed a chain of custody (COC) receipt for each sample. Because of this COC, Tetra Tech identified him as an employee most linked to collecting the fraudulent samples.

It was very convenient for Tetra Tech when Ray Roberson “rolled over and died” coincident with the conclusion of the internal investigation that incriminated him in criminal fraud and raised the specter of civil liability that threatened to shut down the development project.

The Porter family: father and mother, George Donald and Mildred, and their three children

Arthur Jahr is a Tetra Tech RCT whistleblower who spoke at a 2017 press conference hosted by GreenAction and Golden Gate Law School attorneys announcing the petition submitted to the NRC to revoke Tetra Tech’s license. Jahr was Ray Roberson’s co-worker and believes his suspiciously timed death was due to “foul play.”

On April 23, 2018, Navy BRAC coordinator Derek Robinson responded to numerous documented requests that the Navy determine a cause of death for Mr. Roberson given his status as an employee of a Navy contractor. While Mr. Robinson is the designated environmental health officer overseeing the remediation of a property designated a federal Superfund site, he expressed his belief he has no responsibility to investigate the death of a shipyard worker with known exposure to fraudulently cleared soils high in Radium 226.

The final hero of our story is named George Donald Porter. He attended George Washington High School and City College of San Francisco. He married Mildred Lee in 1951 and three children were born of their union. George entered the Armed Services in 1952 and served as a communications center specialist during the Korean conflict.

He was honorably discharged in 1956 and returned home to San Francisco and became one of a generation of young men to successfully integrate jobs previously unattainable by African American men. He dedicated his career to the International Longshoreman’s Workers Union, Local 34. George Porter did his job, day in and day out, as a longshore walking boss and shipping clerk for American President Lines until forced into early retirement by illness and disability.

When she was 5 years old living in public housing on 27 Dakota St. on Potrero Hill, Porter’s daughter harbors memories of him arriving home from work in the evening in an old Buick, license plate BYN 499. He strolled up the sidewalk swinging his metal lunch box – with the treat he often saved for her – wearing steel toed working boots. His daughter adored him; he was so friendly and handsome and wore a big smile.

Ahimsa Sumchai MD – Photo: Steve Maller

The kids in the neighborhood often ran to greet him because so many did not have a father in their lives who told silly jokes. His daughter adored him because he read to her and talked to her as if she was intelligent enough to understand what he said. And she listened to him as he showed her photo after photo he had taken of the ships docked at the shipyard and the workers doing their jobs.

On Valentine’s Day Feb. 14, 1992, George Donald Porter and his daughter went shopping at the neighborhood Safeway and he gave her a box of Godiva chocolates. On Feb. 19, 1992, his daughter went downstairs to check on him when he did not come up for breakfast. She found him dead.

By then, she was a doctor for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and knew the steps that needed to be taken to take care of him. She signed his death certificate but ordered his medical records just to be sure. In that medical record, she found a chest X-ray that showed signs of pulmonary asbestosis and because of that chest X-ray George Donald Porter did not die in vain. His death triggered a class action lawsuit and settlement that benefitted his family and other workers.

The beginning!

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D., founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at asumchai@gmail.com.

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