Declaring a public health crisis at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco ,  a federal Superfund site

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD

The Civil Grand Jury on the Hunters Point Shipyard concludes: “The Jury found the SFDPH (San Francisco Department of Public Health) is not in compliance with its pledge to the California Department of Public Health to keep residents informed of developments at HPS (the Hunters Point Shipyard).” – “Hunters Point Shipyard: A Shifting Landscape,” report of the 2010 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury

“I swear by Apollo the physician …and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill, according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant: I will keep them from harm and injustice.” – The Oath of Hippocrates

The Hippocratic Oath is the most universally binding expression of medical ethics and professional ideals. The Greek physician Hippocrates is believed its author, although it emerged over a century after his death.

As a rite of passage, it requires new physicians uphold specific standards of conduct adopted in 1996 by the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics. In practical application, this ancient text is challenged in a world where abortion and euthanasia are legal, patient privacy is breached by medical records demands and free medical training is not available.

The Oath of Hippocrates – a fragment on the original papyrus

A world where a physician heads a genocidal regimen in Syria and where American doctors monitored and supervised torture carried out by the CIA at black sites and military prisons in 2004. A world where governments conspire to conceal risks of harm to its citizens from environmental injustice.

The Hippocratic Oath is the most universally binding expression of medical ethics and professional ideals.

One of the most spectacular examples of government obstruction in protecting human health and safety occurred in the aftermath of the Twin Towers destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, when Lower Manhattan was choked in clouds of dust that rose over 1,000 feet, subjecting residents, office workers and rescue personnel to a cocktail of toxic gases and airborne particles.

In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took air samples and issued reports that found no excess levels of asbestos, particulates, lead or volatile organic compounds in the air above and around Ground Zero … an implausible claim given the explosive demolition and volatilization of the World Trade Center in New York.

In August 2003, USEPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley admitted the National Security Council acted under directive from the Bush White House to engage in a coverup of the public health hazards at Ground Zero orchestrated to “Keep Wall Street Rolling.” By June 2004, 57 Ground Zero rescue workers had died from exposure to toxic dust.

San Francisco is home to the former Hunters Point Shipyard (HPS). Once called “the world’s greatest shipping yard,” it was declared a federal Superfund site in 1989, defined by USEPA as “one of the nation’s most contaminated lands.” Contaminated by radioactive and toxic waste from decades of military and industrial use, including toxic metals, PCBs, radionuclides, pesticides and volatile organic compounds.

Numerous studies document Southeast San Francisco is burdened by adverse health impacts due to cumulative exposures to toxic air pollution, carcinogens and industrial waste. According to Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, more than 80 percent of San Francisco’s industrially zoned land is located in southeast San Francisco – where I grew up and attended one of 20 schools located within a one-mile radius of HPS. My father was a career longshore walking boss and shipping clerk forced into early retirement and premature death due to pulmonary asbestosis.

In the late 1970s toxic waste dumps like Love Canal received public attention and outcry when the risks to human health and the environment were exposed. In response, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act in 1980, also called the Superfund Act. “To protect public health and the environment, the Superfund program focuses on making a visible and lasting difference in communities, ensuring people can live and work in healthy, vibrant places” (Superfund

On Nov. 7, 2000, over 86 percent of San Francisco voters supported Proposition P  –  a declaration of policy supporting environmental cleanup to residential standards for the Hunters Point Shipyard, where a massive development project is underway to build 12,000 housing units along with millions of square feet of office and retail space … at a federal Superfund site.

By the summer of 2005, grading of the hillside overlooking a parcel of land on HPS transferred to the City and County of San Francisco for residential development was underway. That grading released visible clouds of toxic dust containing asbestos, heavy metals and particulates that migrated over the boundary of the construction site into areas where children and families live, work and play, producing health impacts so dangerous in 2007 the Board of Education voted unanimously in support of a temporary work stoppage and independent health and safety assessment.

In striking parallel to the stance taken by government agencies sworn to protect public health and safety in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, in 2006, Mitch Katz, MD, then director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, distributed an unsigned and undated “Fact Sheet” to Bayview Hunters Point households, schools and community groups adjacent to the dangerous development activities at a federal Superfund site. That letter, written by a physician with a master’s degree in public health, stated: “The type of construction dust generated at the shipyard is common across California and was expected. The area is not contaminated with unsafe levels of chemicals.”

That letter was designed to “Keep Lennar’s Development Project Rolling.” Dr. Katz’s stance in protecting the development project was taken due to a “poison pill” conflict of interest in a health code ordinance adopted in 2004 called Article 31. Article 31 establishes enforcement mechanisms including denial of permits, stop work orders and mandatory penalties.

As documented by the 2010 Civil Grand Jury Report on the Hunters Point Shipyard, funding for the oversight and implementation of Article 31 comes from fees imposed on Lennar by DPH for construction and excavation activities generating more than 50 cubic yards of soil.

“The Jury found the City has placed itself in a potentially compromising position with Lennar where in essence the wolf is paying the shepherd to guard the flock. By having the developer, Lennar, reimburse the city for expenses associated with the HPS redevelopment project, SFDPH has created a situation that could raise doubts in the public’s mind about its commitment to proactively and impartially enforce environmental regulations even when it might adversely impact Lennar,” wrote the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury in its report, “Hunters Point Shipyard: A Shifting Landscape.”

Thus the San Francisco Department of Public Health enjoys a revenue stream from earth moving activities at HPS and this revenue incentivizes dangerous development activities on a federal Superfund site at the expense of public health and safety.

According to the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, “Airborne particles, the main ingredient of haze, smoke and dust, can cause a number of serious health problems. Small particles less than 10 microns pose the biggest problems and can affect both heart and lungs. Numerous studies link particulate exposure to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visit and to death from heart or lung diseases. New studies show exposure to high levels of particle pollution to be associated with low birth weight infants, pre-term delivery and fetal/infant deaths.”

All of these adverse health effects are evident in Bayview Hunters Point and documented by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in its Community Health Assessments. Emergency Room visits and hospitalization rates for pediatric and adult asthma, congestive heart failure and heart attacks are triple the statewide average.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health enjoys a revenue stream from earth moving activities at HPS and this revenue incentivizes dangerous development activities on a federal Superfund site at the expense of public health and safety.

More than half of all infant mortality in San Francisco occurs in the southeast community, and birth defects for the region were 44.3 per 1,000 compared to 33.1 per 1,000 for the county. Additionally, 580 total years of expected life loss due to cancers of the lung, trachea and bronchi are documented in the 2004 Community Health Assessment. After 2009 DPH no longer posted data on cancer incidence and mortality in the 94124 zip code, where the Hunters Point Shipyard and the Bayview Hunters Point community are located.

In this aerial view of the Hunters Point Shipyard, note how close the densely populated housing in the foreground is to the shipyard.

Today we face an unprecedented threat to human health, safety and future generations as a scandal called the “greatest case of eco fraud in U.S. history” mushroomed following the March 2018 release of a U.S. Navy report confirming that in addition to thousands of fraudulent soil samples collected by Tetra Tech EM Inc. detected by Navy computers in 2012, 28 fraudulently cleared buildings by Tetra Tech have been identified at HPS.

In March of 2018 EPA determined 93 percent of soil samples tested on HPS land transferred to the City and County of San Francisco in 2015 from the Navy are flawed by “potential falsification, data manipulation and data quality concerns.” That land is immediately adjacent to where families dwell in townhouses and condominiums.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility executive director Jeff Ruch, “Documents emerging in recent weeks show the radiation testing or soil covering most of the shipyard and its buildings are inaccurate and utterly useless from a public health standpoint.”

As a former physician specialist for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and founding chair of the Radiological Subcommittee of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board, I hereby declare the Hunters Point Shipyard to be a public health crisis and call for a full moratorium on development under Article 31 of the Health Code and call on the California Environmental Contaminant Biomonitoring Program to determine levels of environmental chemicals in Bayview Hunters Point residents adjacent to a federal Superfund site and to monitor trends of these chemicals over time to assess the effectiveness of public health efforts and regulatory oversight.

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 Dr. Sumchai is also president and medical director of  Golden State MD Health & Wellness, an author and a UCSF and Stanford trained researcher. This story originally appeared on Medium, at