Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point

by Natasha Reid

mail2, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
Vivian Donahue, who lives a half block from the Hunters Point Shipyard, testified passionately at the hearing about the Health Department’s refusal to monitor Lennar’s toxic dust and protect residents’ health. – Video frame: SFGTV

The fight by the people of San Francisco to hold the San Francisco Department of Public Health and mega-developer Lennar accountable for clean air and the health of Hunters Point residents endured another round Thursday, June 23, at City Hall. The verdict? Jury still out.

The Board of Supervisors held a hearing on the ethics of DPH amid authoritative allegations of the department’s collaboration with Lennar, the City’s chosen developer for the Hunters Point Shipyard, in framing evidence to disguise unsafe levels of asbestos at the shipyard and in the surrounding area. In tandem, an investigative report has been released by the Civil Grand Jury on the HPS project. This coupling of events has breathed new-found life, focus and attention on the HPS project and its effect on public health.

“It don’t take a whole cupful of asbestos,” said Hunters Point resident Vivian Donahue. “It takes one, one particle to come down into your lungs.” She testified she suffers from chronic headaches and her grandson from nosebleeds she attributes to toxic dust blowing from the shipyard, a half block from her home.

“We have been to the health department, and they tell us that it’s nothing wrong with us, and we know we’re sick,” she said, implying a condescending attitude and lack of genuine concern by City officials.

The residents of Bayview Hunters Point know the shipyard’s history all too well. Tending to ubiquitous nosebleeds and carrying large inhalers around, they can hardly be allowed to forget. The HPS had been a naval base from 1941 to 1974. Following that, the land was leased out to the Triple A Machine Shop.

Some of the shipyard’s most dangerous contamination occurred when the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory was located there, decontaminating warships that had been exposed to atomic bomb blasts and conducting experiments on the effects of radiation on live organisms, including people and animals, and materials.

The site received a second course of abuse at the hands of the Triple A Machine Shop, which was found guilty of storing and disposing of hazardous compounds on shipyard land. In 1989, the mostly abandoned shipyard, now a wasteland, was named as one of the nation’s worst toxic sites by its inclusion in the federal government’s National Priorities List. In 1991, its role as an active naval base was officially ended, but the Navy remained responsible for cleanup.

In contrast with DPH contentions that nearby residents have nothing to worry about from shipyard contamination, DPH Director Mitch Katz noted in a 2006 report quoted by the Civil Grand Jury that the HPS “was placed on the federal government’s National Priorities List as one of the nation’s worst toxic sites and parts of the shipyard remain contaminated and unusable because of chemical pollution, radioactive waste, and neglect.”

Hunters-Point-Naval-Shipyard-c.-1951, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
This photo of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, taken around 1951 when 17,000 people worked there and Hunters Point thrived, illustrates the Civil Grand Jury report.

The most recent shipyard polluter is Lennar. Handed permission in 2004 to build and sell luxury condos on Parcel A, constituting 75 acres of the over 500-acre shipyard, Lennar expects to own the entire shipyard as the remaining parcels are transferred from the Navy through the City to Lennar. The Navy has been decontaminating the shipyard for 20 years, with oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Lennar is burdened with the responsibility of cleaning up any contamination remaining when each parcel is transferred.

On Parcel A, the only part of the shipyard transferred so far, rather than focus on cleanup, Lennar decided to perform a massive grading operation of the naturally asbestos infiltrated dirt. The developer failed to adequately monitor air quality, which resulted in violation of the dust mitigation plan and asbestos being released into the air of the surrounding densely populated neighborhood.

This is where the DPH comes in. In 2007, the California Department of Public Health recommended that the San Francisco Department of Public Health deploy an individual to oversee Lennar’s construction project. The DPH complied. However, since this time, it has been revealed that the DPH has been collaborating with Lennar in an effort to conceal the harmful effects of the developer’s grading and construction activities.

The DPH receives its funding for “monitoring” the shipyard site from Lennar. As the Civil Grand Jury put it, “[T]he City has placed itself in a potentially compromising situation with Lennar where in essence the wolf is paying the shepherd to guard the flock.”

A series of emails between Lennar and DPH officials, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal in plain black and white that Amy Brownell of DPH collaborated with Lennar to hide evidence of asbestos exposure from the dust churned up for years by Lennar in Parcel A, which lies immediately adjacent to a school and the homes of thousands of Hunters Point residents. “The emails revealed officials instructing their colleagues to stop collecting additional data on worker exposure to asbestos, as the new data might not support the department’s official position that asbestos does not constitute a health risk to workers at HPS,” the Civil Grand Jury reports.

Hunters-Point-Shipyard-adjacent-housing1, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
This more recent view of the shipyard shows how close the adjacent housing is. Residents, children attending the many nearby schools and child care centers, and workers have all reported adverse health effects they attribute to Lennar’s development.

In support of this evidence, the Civil Grand Jury has found that the San Francisco DPH was not in compliance with its pledge to the California DPH to keep residents informed of developments at the shipyard, that the City has placed itself in a compromising situation by allowing Lennar to reimburse the City for monitoring expenses and that the email evidence shows “inappropriate communications between senior officials at the DPH and the EPA and Lennar.” For more on the incriminating email correspondence, see “SF Public Health Department ethics under investigation” by Jaron Browne.

Yes, residents of Bayview Hunters Point know this particular story all too well. They have lived through it. Now finally, some steps are being taken to hold accountable those players whose actions have been unquestionably negligent.

Thursday’s hearing was intended to discuss the ethics of the DPH and Lennar in the context of the DPH’s system in place for regulating environmental health impacts.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia of DPH gave a lengthy and comprehensive presentation on regulations outlining how the department should assess environmental health impacts. But, as Bayview Hunters Point resident Marie Harrison of Greenaction eloquently pointed out, “Dr. Bhatia’s presentation was lovely. Problem is, all of the rules that he mentioned were violated.”

And wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate use of time in the hearing: to discuss the violation of DPH standards? Time taken to review the regulations that they have in place could certainly have been better spent. The DPH rules and regulations are reasonable, workable and ethical. It is of course the violation of these standards that is not.

Shipyard-earthmoving-092506-by-Op-Eng-Local-3, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
Lennar is cutting down the Parcel A portion of Hunters Point Hill 35 feet in this photo taken Sept. 25, 2006. For years the grading has generated clouds of toxic dust, which Lennar has rarely tried to suppress. – Photo: Operating Engineers Local 3

One by one, public commentators stood up and recounted their personal experiences of ill health as a result of the toxic wasteland around the corner from their homes, bringing to life the reality of the situation. They expressed their frustrations at the wrongdoing of the co-conspirators.

“Now we know that [DPH’s] opinions were biased in an effort to conceal the truth and their advice swayed others and cost the community in Hunters Point to be divided amongst each other,” testified Starr Miles. “Brownell has displayed environmental racism by placing developers’ interests ahead of the Black, Latino, Samoan and low-income families whose health have been adversely impacted when the developer was not in compliance with the regulatory requirements.”

The consensus was unanimous: Amy Brownell of DPH must step down.

“Everything [Brownell] said, everything [for which] she had oversight, everything she had her hands on, everything she commented on, we want it revisited, reviewed and investigated … not by [DPH] but by an independent party with your [Board of Supervisors’] oversight,” exclaimed Leon Muhammad, dean of the school located just outside the shipyard fence. His students have suffered for years from ill health they suspect is caused by Lennar’s toxic dust and DPH’s failure to prevent it through proper monitoring.

Upon the close of public commentary, Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district is largely comprised of Bayview Hunters Point, posed a number of questions to Dr. Bhatia, intending to gather information about the punitive system in place at DPH for employees who are found in violation of regulations.

Dr. Bhatia revealed that they don’t have a punitive system. An employee found in violation of department regulations is written a “notice of violation” and asked to take a number of steps with the intention of reversing what damage they have caused.

Can Amy Brownell reverse the health impacts, psychological distress and tireless struggle of the people of Hunters Point that have emerged from her collaboration with Lennar?

“If an employee fails to take the requested steps, punitive action is looked into,” consoled Dr. Bhatia. No mention was made of what the content of the notice of violation issued to Amy Brownell would be.

“How long will your investigations take,” asked Supervisor David Campos, chair of the Government Audit Committee, which convened the hearing.

Hunters-Point-Shipyard-barren-moonscape-0610-by-Francisco-web, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
With its grading, Lennar turned Parcel A – once a pleasant neighborhood of Navy officer housing – into a barren moonscape. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa

“I do not have an answer for you,” answered Dr. Bhatia. “Hunters Point Shipyard has already been through multiple reviews, so no further reviews will be made.”

The Board of Supervisors has a job at hand, but from today’s hearing, there is no telling what direction that will take or how quickly it may be shaped. The hearing was successful insofar as the people being heard, the crisis being re-addressed and the focus, for now, being on the situation. But no substantive information on the next steps to be taken was relayed. So, we wait.

Hunters Point residents are prepared to attend more hearings, as they have become accustomed to doing, to use their two minutes before the bell is rung and their voices sounded out to plead their case.

And it is hardly a difficult case to plead. The gravity of the negligence and recklessness of Lennar and DPH and of the effects thereof is apparent. The investigative report by the Civil Grand Jury supports that. Indeed, it is safe to hypothesize that in a better world where gravity of tort issues were directly proportional to the speed of which wrongdoing was penanced by way of reparation, this controversy would have long been settled.

But alas, such ideals are rarely mirrored in reality, and we must settle for the fact that progress, however little, is being made.

With the release of the Civil Grand Jury report, the situation will certainly be difficult to ignore. The report recommends that DPH adhere to its pledge to protect San Franciscans, stop collecting funding from Lennar so as to eliminate the conflicts of interest, rigorously enforce conflict of interest guidelines, conduct an independent environmental assessment of HPS and become vigilant in their monitoring of the cleanup of the entire site. These are recommendations that need to be acted upon swiftly by DPH. But yet, still we wait.

The public wants “everything that the DPH has touched to be re-examined,” said Starr Miles at the hearing.

The public wants to address the concern that “no mechanism for accountability is in place,” added Jaron Browne.

Hunters-Point-Shipyard-construction-worker-0610-by-Lea-Suzuki-SF-Chron, Holding the Health Dept. accountable for health in Hunters Point, Local News & Views
Recently Lennar has installed some sidewalks and roads, but so far no homes have been built. Few workers employed by either Lennar or the Navy come from Hunters Point. – Photo: Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle

The public wants the Board of Supervisors to attend to their duty and “protect all of us,” concluded Marie Harrison.

Alas, the public is ready for the fat lady to sing. But patience certainly is a virtue, and more time – no telling how much – will certainly pass before the soprano notes finally ring in our ears. The only thing of certainty at this point is that the public, the residents of Hunters Point, will not give up the fight until the fat lady quits holding her breath and sings.

The Civil Grand Jury report may be accessed at http://www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=2870 and for a video of the entire hearing, go to http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=11&clip_id=12598.

Natasha Reid is a writer of Zimbabwean and Scottish descent, on a transatlantic mission to explore and reveal new truths whilst volunteering at the Bay View. She holds an honors law degree, though her real passion lies in journalism and political awareness. You can contact Natasha at tash.reid7@gmail.com.