Navy said to be conducting background checks on activists

Abandoned_building_at_Hunters_Point_Shipyard_San_Francisco, Navy said to be conducting background checks on activists, Archives 1976-2008 Local News & Views

Navy may be aiming to intimidate RAB leaders

by Kimberly Melton

San Francisco – In the face of criticism that it has fraudulently misrepresented scientific information and concealed the truth surrounding incidents which have threatened the health and safety of Hunters Point residents, the Navy may have undertaken background checks of candidates seeking leadership roles in the Restoration Advisory Board for the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The RAB, composed of representatives from the community, regulatory agencies and the Navy, meets every fourth Thursday to hear updates and make recommendations on environmental cleanup of the Shipyard, a 550-acre Superfund site.

As the time for election of new RAB community co-chairs approaches, many believe that the Navy is seeking to stack the deck with more pro-Navy RAB members in anticipation of a fierce battle. Though Richard Mach, base environmental coordinator and RAB co-chair for the Navy, flatly denies any Navy involvement in personal or criminal background checks, environmental justice activists were told in confidence after Thursday’s RAB meeting that one criminal background check has been completed and others are expected. They speculate that the purpose is to intimidate RAB members and discourage them from running for community co-chair.

At Thursday’s RAB meeting, the audience, eager for answers to questions posed at previous meetings, had to wait through presentations by RAB members defending the Navy. Barbara Bushnell, who was recently rushed onto the RAB when Mach overlooked six candidates who had submitted their applications months earlier, read from a lengthy statement. She criticized other Bayview Hunters Point residents and community RAB members for what she called their ruthless pursuit of the Navy and declared, “We need to deal with the here and now! Not what happened before. … The shipyard has been there 60 years and damage has been done – Why do we rush to know what is there now?”

She lashed out at RAB members’ complaints that Navy officials have lied in fact sheets distributed to the public, concealed information threatening to the health and safety of Hunters Point residents and misrepresented scientific data to the public about a series of hazardous incidents at the Shipyard. She also called for the unimpeded development of the Shipyard and denied that the radiation hazards at the shipyard were significant.

Bushnell specifically claimed that the radium and uranium detected in high levels at the Shipyard are naturally occurring. “Radioactivity is a natural part of our everyday life and will continue to be so,” she contended.

In rebuttal, Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai, chair of the RAB Radiation Subcommittee and former head of the Persian Gulf, Agent Orange, Ionizing Radiation Registry for the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital, stated that “ionizing radiation has been the strongest scientific and environmental link to cancer in human populations. Also,” she continued, “a recent subcommittee tour of the former Naval Shipyard included a visit to shoreline ‘slag’ sites IR-01 and IR-03 where geiger counter readings confirmed elevated levels of the radionuclide radium. The technologist performing the readings confirmed to subcommittee members that the elevated radium at the slag sites is probably due to radium dials and gauges.”

In response to Bushnell’s claims that radioactive materials on the base are naturally occurring, Sumchai reported that at least two nuclear accelerators were housed and operational at the Hunters Point Shipyard during the years that the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory was active. In a June 28, 2001, document provided to answer RAB members’ questions, the U.S. Navy Radiological Affairs Support Office fully acknowledged, “Yes, a Kevatron particle accelerator is a term applied to an accelerator similar to the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator. NRDL used a Cockcroft-Walton type accelerator in Building 529.” Additionally, a Van de Graft nuclear accelerator was used as an X-ray source in building 816.

During the meeting, Sumchai challenged RASO representative Laura Lowman to discuss the exact number of nuclear accelerators at the Shipyard during 1947-1970, the years the NRDL was operating there. A former NRDL employee, Phil Fong, invited by the Navy to attend, stunned the audience by responding, “None.”

Lowman carefully corrected him on his error and ultimately admitted that three nuclear accelerators were housed at the Shipyard under NRDL including a Cyclotron nuclear accelerator, which RASO representatives claim was never fully operational.

While denying that a nuclear reactor was located at the Shipyard, RASO representatives admitted that one was brought into San Francisco Bay aboard ship. They also acknowledged that human experiments were performed at the Shipyard under NRDL auspices and that radioactive materials were intentionally released into the air, water, sewage systems and soil as “experiments,” according to Lowman.

When scientist and RAB member Ray Tompkins challenged them about whether the releases could potentially have been dangerous, one of the RASO representatives admitted, “You may be right, sir.”

Though Bushnell dismissed concern that radioactivity could be a current danger to health and safety, she recognized in her prepared statement the reason that radiological research had become a major focus at the Shipyard during World War II: “it had a lot to do with the Atomic bomb,” she wrote, acknowledging the bomb’s “overwhelming power … when it was released upon the world August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan.” Bushnell’s statement does not mention the presence of an atomic bomb at the Hunters Point Shipyard, but in response to a question from RAB member Lynne Brown, both the RASO representatives and Mach confirmed that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had indeed departed from Hunters Point on the USS Indianapolis.

The U.S. Navy is presently facing intense public criticism and scrutiny worldwide as a result of the recent death of a child in a cluster of leukemia cases linked to radioactivity and toxins from a naval base in Nevada, as well as the controversial bombing exercises it conducts on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where residents soundly defeated the Navy in a referendum this week. Additionally, the death of large marine mammals was recently linked to Navy sonar, and the escape of methane gas and other toxins from a landfill adjacent to a former military base in nearby Novato simulate the type of catastrophe scenario Bayview Hunters Point environmental activists are fighting to avoid.

More than once, the Navy has been charged with dishonesty and concealment in an effort to minimize the hazards it has created — and not just in Hunters Point. What does it mean if you have to resort to cheating to succeed? I was always taught that if you cheat to win, you are only affirming to the opposition that you could not win by fair and honest means and that those who oppose you are indeed superior.

Join RAB members as they continue to press for truth and justice for Hunters Point residents. The next RAB meeting is Thursday, Aug. 23, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., in the community room at the Bayview Police Station, 201 Williams St. Meanwhile, the Community First Coalition meets every Friday at 2:30 at Bayview Advocates, 5021 Third St., and everyone is welcome.

Kimberly Melton is a senior at Stanford majoring in African American Studies and interning at the Bay View. Email her at