Shipyard workers demand environmental justice

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

“Parcel A never underwent a full cleanup as required by the federal Superfund Act and was transferred with a litany of residual contaminants from lead and asbestos in buildings to arsenic, metals, motor oil and breakdown products of diesel in soil and groundwater.” This is documented in the Parcel A Record of Decision, a copy of which is included in my private archives of Navy cleanup documents. – Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D. “The Liars Club,” SF Bay View, Sept. 26, 2007

HP-Shipyard-Lennar-drilling-032907-by-Paul-Chinn-Chron-300x207, Shipyard workers demand environmental justice, Local News & Views
In its first year of earthmoving, 2006-2007, Lennar excavated 1.2 million cubic yards of earth. Many dangerous toxins are present in the soil and the dust. – Photo: Paul Chinn, SF Chronicle

A cleanup worker at the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPS) in southeast San Francisco is facing a rare life threatening cancer he believes is caused by his exposure to known toxins at the federal Superfund site.

Diagnosed with a Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma (PTCL), an aggressive high grade lymphoid malignancy arising from cells of the lymphatic system with a five year survival rate of 32 percent, the worker has retained the high powered New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg. Representatives of W&L’s Environmental Protection, Toxic Tort, Consumer Protection Team will be in Bayview Hunters Point this week conducting meetings and investigations.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Weitz & Luxenberg announced a New York jury took less than two hours to award a $20 million verdict to the family of a Navy shipfitter who died last year of mesothelioma, against defendant corporation Burnham, LLC. In issuing the verdict the jury opined, “The defendant corporation acted with reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s safety when it caused him to be exposed to asbestos insulating their boilers.”

T lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that plays a central role in cell mediated immunity. Many people are familiar with T lymphocytes because they are attacked by the AIDS virus and we measure their levels in people with HIV disease. In an aggressive lymphoma like PTCL, up to 70 percent of the circulating T cells can be in a cancerous blast form.

Research conducted in the 1990s linked solid cancers arising from cells of the lymphatic system to environmental exposures to PCBs, benzene, ionizing radiation, UV light and pesticides – all toxins that are widespread at HPS. In 2010 the Navy conducted a massive PCB cleanup action at HPS involving over 300 trucks.

The volatile organic compound benzene is listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Elevated benzene levels have been documented in numerous air monitoring studies conducted in Bayview Hunters Point.

Radium 226 is the most ubiquitous radioactive material found at HPS. Present in “Black Beauty sandblast,” radium dials buried in landfills and poured down the drains of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) on Parcel A, inhaled or ingested radium heightens the risk of developing diseases like lymphoma, bone cancers, leukemia and aplastic anemia.

Radium 226 is found at HPS in ambient levels so high that in October 2012, the U.S. Navy detected discrepancies in post remediation soil samples submitted by Tetra Tech field workers because the concentrations of radioactive potassium and Radium 226 were suspiciously low!

Lennar-condo-construction-HP-Shipyard-0614-300x227, Shipyard workers demand environmental justice, Local News & Views
Lennar’s construction of it first 88 condos at the Hunters Point Shipyard, renamed The Shipyard by Lennar, was underway in June 2014. If potential buyers knew the dangers of the chemical and radiological toxins in the soil, would they pay a half million dollars to live there? – Photo: SF Curbed

Tetra Tech is the Navy contractor overseeing the cleanup at HPS. A laboratory computer data base search identified 2,500 fraudulent samples collected from 20 survey sites involving Tetra Tech workers from 2008 to 2012.

Radiation Control Technician Ray Roberson was one of several field employees and supervisors listed on the chain of custody for the suspicious soil samples. Two of the field workers were terminated and Ray Roberson conveniently died at the conclusion of the damaging investigation.

“The investigation revealed that Ray Roberson was listed on chains of custody for four sets of systematic samples … These chains of custody are in conflict with statements made by these individuals … Shortly after this investigation, Ray Roberson passed away,” according to a report titled “Investigation Conclusion Anomalous Soil Samples at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard” by Tetra Tech Inc., dated April 2014.

“It’s playing Russian Roulette with the people that handle it and the environment … Someone from the general public could walk in, get contaminants on their clothes, their person, eat the food. They could have an intake of radioactive contaminants and it would never have been caught or avoided,” commented Bert Bowers, former radiation safety officer for Tetra Tech at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Bert Bowers was hired by Tetra Tech to maintain compliance with federal mandates governing radiation protection and the handling of radioactive materials. He was just doing his job when he notified superiors he witnessed violations of protocols for the proper storage of contaminated radiation detection devices and inadequate signage and barriers to keep the public out of radioactive areas that had not been cleared.

Bowers told the NBC Investigative News Team on May 19, 2014, his experience at HPS was “the most egregious violation of standard protocol” he had encountered in his 35-year career.

In 2010 Bowers took photos of trucks and tanks hauling dirt and contaminated water from the shipyard that had not been tested for radiation or cleared for disposal.

Susan Andrews, a radiation safety technician who worked for Tetra Tech at HPS under Bowers, claims the sensitivity of portal monitors used to screen trucks for radiation leaving the job site was deliberately decreased below standards. The NBC News team confirmed her allegations that by lowering radiation sensitivity of the portal monitors, Navy contractors were able to “get dirt out that’s contaminated that should never have left Hunters Point. It’s not right. They can’t be shipping contaminated soil as clean landfill into the city of San Francisco!”

Bowers told the NBC Investigative News Team on May 19, 2014, his experience at HPS was “the most egregious violation of standard protocol” he had encountered in his 35-year career.

Bowers and Andrews submitted 30 formal complaints to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which investigated the claims as late as 2012 but was unable to substantiate the allegations. Bowers and Andrews lost their jobs with Tetra Tech after contacting federal regulators. They call it retaliation and have filed civil lawsuits.

There was no response to a sternly worded email I sent to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Oct. 1, 2014:

Ahimsa-for-mayor-091207-by-Luke-Thomas-297x300, Shipyard workers demand environmental justice, Local News & Views
Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai used her mayoral campaign in 2007 to call attention to the urgent need for environmental justice. – Photo: Luke Thomas

“As the 2001 founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, I am submitting the Tetra Tech Investigation of Anomalous Soil Samples for your review. Please direct this serious matter to the Land Use Committee.

“This investigation documents from January 2008 to October 2012 2,500 anomalous soil samples were collected from 20 survey sites on Parcels C and E at HPS. These samples were thoroughly investigated and found to be fraudulent at 16 sites.

“At one site, soil was found to contain elevated levels of Radium 226, a gamma emitter capable of stripping electrons from human tissue. Please note the radiation control technician most closely implicated in the collection of the fraudulent samples via chain of custody determinations died at the conclusion of the investigation.

“I am demanding the San Francisco Board of Supervisors investigate the health and human safety consequences of four years of documented negligence and fraud in the handling of radiation contaminated soils at HPS and demand that Cal OSHA investigate the cause of death of a worker linked to handling of radioactive soils.

“The Board of Supervisors must demand that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the California Department of Health and the Navy Radiological Affairs Office respond to public and worker health and safety risks posed by the damaging findings of this investigation.” – Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

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