The landfill in our living room

Screen-Shot-2020-01-02-at-10.43.54-PM, The landfill in our living room, Archives 1976-2008 Local News & Views

Part 2

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

My mother would tell the United States Navy the same thing she told her three selfish, ungrateful children: “Clean up the mess in the living room before you leave!”

Every elementary school child in Bayview Hunters Point needs to understand the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the interpretation of air monitoring data and landfill gas basics.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry provides basic information about landfill gas, what it is composed of, how it is produced, and the conditions affecting its production, in an “Overview for Environmental Health Professionals.” Landfill gas is composed of a mixture of different gases. By volume, landfill gas typically contains 45 to 60 percent methane and 40 to 60 percent carbon dioxide. It also includes small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulfides, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene.

Landfill gas is produced by three processes – bacterial decomposition, volatilization and chemical reactions. Most landfill gas is produced when organic waste is broken down by bacteria present in the waste and in soil used to cover the landfill. Organic waste includes food, domestic garbage, wood and paper products.

The industrial landfill located on Parcel E of the Hunters Point Shipyard is known to contain potentially flammable petroleum products, construction debris, irradiated animal carcasses, human feces and lead based paint, pesticides and solvents.

Landfill gases are also created when organic compounds change from solid or liquid into a vapor form. This process is known as volatilization. It can be used to explain the presence of VOCs like benzene detected in air monitoring studies at the Shipyard.

Finally, landfill gas can be created by chemical reactions in the waste. Chlorine bleach and ammonia may react to form chlorinated gases like arochlor and chloroform that are consistently detected in Shipyard air monitoring studies.

Several conditions may affect landfill gas production, including the composition of the waste. The more organic waste present the more landfill gas is produced. The age of the waste is also important. Peak landfill gas production usually occurs from five to seven years after the waste is buried. Waste buried less than 10 years produces more landfill gas than does waste buried more than 10 years.

The presence of oxygen in the landfill is also a critical determinant. Methane gas will be produced only when oxygen is no longer present. Moisture in a landfill increases gas production by encouraging bacterial decomposition.

Finally, temperature is the most important factor that I believe transformed the “dormant volcano” of the Parcel E landfill – a landfill that received waste from 1958 through 1974 and was over 28 years old when it caught fire in August of 2000 and by August 2002 was producing methane gas in suffocating, flammable and explosive concentrations as high as 80 percent in air.

As the temperature in a landfill rises, bacterial activity increases, resulting in increased gas production. Increased temperature also increases the rate of volatilization and chemical reactions.

Extra! Extra! Shipyard on fire … Nobody cares!

“The National Response Center requires notification within 30 minutes of a known hazardous substance release to the environment. The California Health and Safety Code requires a report to the State of California Office of Emergency Services and to the local Hazardous Materials Release Response Administering Agency.” – U.S. Navy Integrated Contingency Plan for Hunters Point Shipyard

The May 2001 decision by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to impose a $25,000 fine upon the Navy for its failure to report the August 2000 Parcel E industrial landfill fire illustrated the critical importance of notification requirements both for protecting the health and safety of residents, Shipyard tenants and workers and community business owners and for strategically advancing environmental activists’ goals in Bay View Hunters Point.

All hazardous substance releases to the environment and oil spills to navigable waters and soils must be reported immediately to the National Response Center. Additionally, Shipyard officials are required to notify the NRC of releases of hazardous substances or oil in storm water discharges from Hunters Point Shipyard industrial activities and radiation related incidents as soon as the discharge is discovered. A spill record is required within 14 calendar days of knowledge of a release of a reportable quantity of a hazardous substance. The core plan of the Shipyard Integrated Contingency Plan stipulates: “Do not postpone NRC notification pending collection of data.”

The Southwest Division of the Navy, whose Naval Facilities Engineering Command is charged with the cleanup, relocation and closure of the Shipyard, waited until Aug. 31, 2000, to report a fire on the Parcel E landfill first responded to by the Hunters Point Fire District on Aug. 16. A fire that smoldered until late September and was clearly visible to Shipyard tenants, workers and community residents living within 800 feet of the landfill.

As an exercise in “trust,” the Navy convened a series of meetings with community members, health and public safety officials and regulators in the immediate aftermath of the fire to construct a Community Notification Plan to alert the surrounding affected community of Shipyard incidents posing a real or potential threat to human life, safety or health or damage to property. The final plan was released in August of 2001.

Efforts toward building community trust were undermined, however, by continued efforts by the Navy to conceal hazardous events occurring at the Shipyard. In May of 2001, a “whistleblower” working on the Shipyard cleanup reported that multiple human victims and the nearby residential community had been exposed to radioactive “black beauty” sandblast on May 11, 2001, and that the Navy contractor, IT Corp., concealed this fact until threatened with legal action on June 2, 2001.

Fire is defined as 1) the light, heat and flame given off by something burning; 2) a burning mass of material; 3) a destructive burning in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary.

After four months and 50 engine runs by the Hunters Point Fire District (HPFD), a series of Shipyard fires went largely ignored by the Navy, the major media, the Department of Public Health and City officials, as plans by Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. to advance the development of the smoldering, toxin-laden federal Superfund site moved relentlessly forward.

The most disturbing incident was described under the community notification plan on Sept. 11, 2001. “DoD police personnel activated HPFD reporting heavy smoke coming from the south gate of the base at 3:15pm. Both SFFD and HPFD were dispatched to Crisp Avenue where they encountered ‘fire moving at a rapid speed with flames 15 to 25 feet high.’ The fire was observed moving towards the parking lot area of Building 815 located in the Parcel A region of the Shipyard. According to the email notification report, ‘family dwellings above the fire were threatened.’ After the deployment of several hundred feet of hose and equipment, the fire was extinguished at 5pm. The HPFD was, however, reactivated to the Building 815 site to extinguish hot spots over the next two days as verified by fire run reports #46 and 47.”

A total of seven fire related incidents were reported during the month of September, all occurring in the Parcel A and B regions of the Shipyard, where the Mayor’s Office was aggressively advancing its early development plans. It is my belief these fires were due largely to the presence of flammable, explosive methane gas emanating from the northern edge of the partially capped landfill on nearby Parcel E.

Despite the alarming frequency and intensity of the Shipyard fires, which no doubt acted to volatilize toxic materials in their path, like plastics, old tires and radioactive materials, and to disseminate chemicals and gases, the issue never reached the agenda at the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board meetings. The RAB is composed of “concerned citizens and government representatives involved in the environmental cleanup at HPS (Hunters Point Shipyard).”

In contrast, at the July 9, 2001, meeting of the Mayor’s Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), Don Capobres of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency reported a series of grass fires over the Fourth of July weekend at the Shipyard – all of which were under the Navy’s jurisdiction. Capobres announced the Redevelopment Agency’s intent to propose weed abatement to the Navy.

The CAC moved to write a letter to Supervisor Sophie Maxwell’s office recommending that SFFD and HPFD work together to abate the hazards of the fire. The CAC minutes document a motion to send copies of the letter to the RAB and to the Project Area Committee urging them to do likewise. No correspondence from the CAC was ever entered into record, discussed or announced at the July, August or September RAB meetings, and it is unclear what response was issued by Supervisor Maxwell’s office.

At the August 2001 meeting of the RAB, I distributed and discussed a report describing the adverse impact on the Denver, Colo., metropolitan area of prescribed vegetation burns at a Department of Energy facility and how the fires contribute to marked increases in downwind radiation counts. Radiation meters detected levels as high as 10,000 cpm following the fires in Colorado. Of note, background radiation levels at the Hunters Point Shipyard are already 8,000 cpm!

Dr. Lauren Moret, president of Scientists for Indigenous People, presented a letter written to the Hunters Point Shipyard RAB by Ernest J. Sternglass, Ph.D, professor emeritus of radiation physics at the University of Pittsburgh. Sternglass states, “It has long been known that radioactive atoms can attach themselves to dust and other particles such as exhaust from diesel engines, smoke released from incinerators as well as other chemicals and vapors in the air.”

At an Aug. 16, 2001, press conference held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Parcel E landfill fire, members of the Community First Coalition presented startling photographic evidence of a recent fire emanating from the northern edge of the landfill. Navy officials denied the landfill was ever on fire in 2001.

CFC Chair Maurice Campbell first proposed the Shipyard fires were causally related to methane gas escaping from the northern edge of the landfill. It was not until one year later, however, that the U.S. Navy – at the behest of the EPA – implemented an emergency landfill gas removal action which detected methane gas, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and increased levels of ground level ozone, which, in small amounts and in concentrations of 80 percent in air, can be suffocating, flammable and explosive.

During the Navy’s landfill gas investigation in the spring of 2002, it discovered the methane gas had migrated north of the landfill onto the University of California, San Francisco, compound.

Concentrations of methane gas in air exceeding 5 percent stand in violation of state law, and state regulator Chein Kao of the Department of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry broke the silence and emerged as a champion of community safety in a media interview with Lisa Davis of the SF Weekly about the risks of methane gas from the Shipyard landfill – risks that were first predicted in a 1994 ATSDR report on the Hunters Point Shipyard.

In a letter dated May 7, 2002, from Claire Trombadore of the Region 9 EPA, the Parcel E landfill was cited as being out of compliance with state law. Additionally, the EPA documents having been “recently informed about significant subsurface detections of methane gas adjacent to Crisp Avenue on Parcel A.”

Hindsight is truly 20/20, and in retrospect I am convinced that the potentially life threatening and property damaging fire that raged on Sept. 11, 2001, along Crisp Avenue, which blazed with “flames 15 to 25 feet high” and “threatened family dwellings above the shipyard” was ignited by the presence of methane gas from the Parcel E landfill.

Contact Dr. Sumchai at (415) 835-4763 or asumchai@sfbayview