Jumped into the toxic land!

Post-war nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1946, called Operation Crossroads, contaminated the many ships exposed to it. Those ships were brought to the Hunters Point Shipyard for decontamination by sandblasting, which produced tons of irradiated sand. The children of Hunters Point played in it, calling it “black beauty sand” for the way it glistened in the sun. Sand was used to pave walkways and side roads all over the Shipyard. – Photo: Fritz Goro, Life Magazine

The now and future of the UC-led independent review of the Hunters Point Shipyard project

by M. Reza Shirazi, IURD, UC Berkeley

On July 17, the Hunters Pont Shipyard Citizen Advisory Board’s Environmental and Reuse Subcommittee held a meeting with this agenda: “University of California at San Francisco and University of California at Berkeley experts will provide and update on their independent review of radiological testing at Hunters Point Shipyard.” This meeting was planned to give UC researchers the chance to “participate in a community listening session coordinated by Supervisor Walton and the Hunters Point Shipyard Citizen’s Advisory Committee to hear directly from residents and community members,” as the press release issued by the Mayor’s Office on April 17 stated.

In January 2019, Mayor Breed in her first State of the City address announced that an independent analysis will be conducted by representatives from the University of California at San Francisco and University of California at Berkeley to clarify questions around the testing at the Hunters Point Shipyard Project. Located in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, the Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard Development Plan consists of approximately 12,000 homes and several million square feet of other land uses and urban space.

Part of this development, Hunters Point Shipyard Phase II, a former naval base, has been subject to massive remediation work for several years under the leadership of the Navy and supervision of several federal and state regulatory agencies. It was finally confirmed by the EPA in 2017 that Tetra Tech, the company hired by the Navy to clean up the Shipyard, has conducted widespread deliberate data falsification, to the extent that in some parcels, such as Parcels B and G, over 90 percent of samples were suspected or confirmed to be fraudulent.

This made residents of Parcel A very concerned about their safety: Hundreds of people are living in part of the Shipyard that has been under construction since 2012. A re-testing effort conducted by the California Department of Public Health, based on a surface scan from the public areas of the site, suggested that Parcel A is safe.

However, this did not let the residents feel safe living there. The call for a review by UC researchers intends to provide the concerned residents with an “independent review” that addresses safety issues of the development.

I obtained some documents regarding the “independent review” and, despite being advised by the officials not to make them available, published them in a SF Bay View article on April 27, 2019, entitled: “Toxic land! Walk carefully! Notes on the UC-led independent review of the Hunters Point Shipyard project.” In this article, after analyzing the goals, scope and the charges of the review, I argued that the plan proposed for reviewing is short in scope and does not answer the core question of the residents – being whether Parcel A is safe or not; the process was not transparent because the decision on the structure of the committee and the scope of the review was made behind the closed doors without providing detailed information to the public; and finally the review is exclusionary as it fails to include community members and engage them properly.

To address these shortcomings, I suggested the following: expanding the interview list to include community members; running focus group discussions to gain more in-depth insight into the problem and the context; bringing members of the community into the committee; and proposing a clear plan to the community for the post-review era that explains what needs to be done to answer the core question: whether Parcel A is safe or not.

In January 2005, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, and other dignitaries, announced the transfer of Parcel A of the Hunters Point Shipyard from the Navy to the City. Home construction began in 2012 and the first homeowners moved into the SF Shipyard development in 2014.

Don’t dig into the dirt!

Back to the meeting. Out of four members of the UC Committee, only Dr. Balmes was present. It was not clear why other members were absent – I find it a negative signal to the community; this implies that the work they want to do voluntarily is not a priority for them, neither is it important to have a face-to-face firsthand contact and exchange with the community members and listen directly to their concerns.

Dr. Balmes first introduced himself, gave a brief introduction to the charges given to the committee and stated that he is in the meeting to listen; and I think he heard a lot! As I would expect, the audience was not happy with the review plan; they raised serious questions and made tough comments and critiques.

Here, I don’t want to go through all the questions and comments, most of which I find relevant and accurate (you can find the recording of the meeting on the CAC’s Facebook page). They requested to add to the interview list whistleblowers, members of the dissolved Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), homeowners, knowledgeable experts from the community and other groups that have been working with the community for a long time; a look at the history of contamination and testimonies of previous workers at the Shipyard; expansion of the review to make it as comprehensive as possible; and an effort to stimulate efficient conversation with the community.

Dr. Balmes’ response to one question was interesting: When he was questioned whether the committee would interview other individuals than those who are already on the list, such as whistle-blowers, Dr. Balmes responded that the committee needs to go back to the mayor, Supervisor Walton and City Attorney Herrera for permission to expand the charge, because “I think there was a desire to have technical expertise without digging into the dirt”!

This statement, I would argue, reveals the main goal of the review and the intention behind it: the goal is to put together “technical expertise without digging into the dirt”! Here I would like to make four important points.

First, from the introduction given by Dr. Balmes, we learned that the members of the committee have had very limited, if any, say in developing the scope and structure of the review, to the extent that the plan was given to them and they have been instructed to stick to it. Even adding a number of interviewees to the list needs extra permission.

Second, it seems that the committee is aware why they have been charged to delimit their investigation to a small number of documents and individuals, because “digging into the dirt” may reveal things that shouldn’t be uncovered! Here is the question: Did the committee members ask themselves for a moment why they shouldn’t “dig into the dirt”? What is in the dirt that should not be revealed?

And here lies a serious ethical and moral question for the four members of the committee: If they have had very limited, if any, freedom in designing what should be done, how have they convinced themselves that what they have been asked to do is the right thing to do? And how can they be sure that what they have been instructed to do can address the very complicated issues of the Shipyard and is good for the community?

And finally, if the committee has accepted to do what is written in the plan, no matter what their role has been in developing the content and methodology, this indicates that they find the plan, as it is now, sufficient to address the question they want to answer. But is it really so? Do they really defend the plan and the methodology and find it sufficient? These are all tough questions that need to be answered by the committee.

Starting in the spring of 2006, Lennar used gigantic earthmovers to slice part of the hill that exposed asbestos fibers and dust to adjacent areas. Many residents reported nosebleeds, headaches, rashes and asthma and blamed Lennar for not properly monitoring dust exposure. – Photo: Jakub Mosur, SF Chronicle

A political cover or an independent review?

I summarized the core themes raised by the audience. Yet, two of them deserve a closer look. Steve Castleman from The Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, Golden Gate University, made the following comment: “Dr. Balmes … I don’t think you understand quite what you have gotten into. … Here is what you need to know. The mayor is going to use you and your colleagues and your professional integrity as cover to say everything is fine …

“And if you don’t want to be used that way, then you have to do a real investigation. Nobody wants that. They want you to talk to the Navy. They want you to talk to the DPH. … The people that they want you to talk to are the people who were in charge when the fraud took place. … You are talking with the wrong people. …

“You should not go forward if you are going to be used as political cover … You have a license, you have a professional reputation, I suggest you take care of it.” Strong words! Steve Castleman underlined that this is his personal comment, but I believe this is rooted in his long-term engagement with the question of the Shipyard.

I am not in a position to say, as Steve Castleman said with certainty, that all this has been planned to serve as a “political cover.” But I believe that this is quite a possibility. What helps me support this argument is my own analysis from the process of decision-making regarding the “independent review” as I outlined in my article: The process was exclusive, non-participatory and non-transparent, and this is what the politicians and decision-makers do when they want to cover up.

I say this based on my long-term international experience in analyzing planning and decision-making processes worldwide. But how the UC team members want to take care of their professional integrity and reputation is what they need to explore.

Another shocking moment of the meeting was when a young lady, 20 weeks pregnant, who moved to San Francisco to live in Parcel A about three months ago, said this: “This is the first time I am hearing about this. … This is really scary!”

Talking with a shaking voice that expressed her fear, anxiety and worry, she seemed to be surprised by what she was hearing about the fraud and safety concerns in the Shipyard. Note that now around 20 homeowners have sued Lennar and Tetra Tech for failure to present a correct image from the history of the site and hiding part of the reality, and selling them “a false dream.”

And it would not be a surprise to see that the practice of hiding or not revealing all the truth for newcomers is still the marketing practice. But, just for a moment, let’s put ourselves in shoes of this young mother-to-be: You have moved to an apparently nice place to deliver and raise your child, but you realize that you are at the edge of a toxic and highly contaminated site and in the middle of a long-standing controversy over its safety!

Who is responsible for the stress, fear and anxiety of this young woman, and hundreds of others, who are living in an atmosphere of uncertainty? And those who should be held accountable for this are asking the independent review committee “not to dig into the dirt”!

Lennar has built more than 400 homes on Parcel A; more homes are currently under construction. Around 20 homeowners filed lawsuits against Lennar and Tetra Tech in 2018 for not disclosing the extent of contamination in the property and the potential danger, and selling them “a false dream.” – Photo: M. Reza Shirazi

It was wrong right from the beginning!

I called the title of my previous article: “Toxic land.” Toxicity of the Hunters Point Shipyard is two-faceted: On the one hand, it is a highly chemically contaminated land to the extent that in 1989 the Shipyard was designated as a Superfund site.

But there is another dimension of toxicity that, I believe, is much more complex and situated: The land is contaminated by a high concentration of mistrust and distrust. This distrust between the community and the government – meaning all governmental bodies, from the local to federal level, involved in the redevelopment of the Shipyard – is a historical construct that is rooted in a history of ignorance, discrimination and disenfranchisement.

It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the historicity of the governing distrust, but one thing is clear to me: The cloud of distrust is so dense and thick that it will never disappear or disperse with any single wind of good will. It needs a collective action that the generators of the distrust have failed, and still fail, to initiate.

But what should one do in this situation? This is the question that the committee had to ask right at the beginning. And I assume they never asked it, or at least they failed to understand the complexity of the situation and find a proper response to this question.

I believe any work within this toxic land should start with “trust building” – showing your good will to the community that you are not part of the “old machinery of fraud and ignorance” that has generated a cloud of distrust between the community and the city, state and federal government, but you are different and want to be helpful and not harmful. The review committee missed this first step: Instead of stepping carefully into this highly toxic land, they jumped into it!

They should have done everything differently right from the beginning! Because it was wrong right from the beginning: It was non-transparent, exclusionary and ill-planned. The committee had to meet with the community before starting the work, show that they want to help them, involve some community members into the committee, hold regular meetings with different individuals, and expand the interview list to include a diverse population.

And if this was not what the city wanted, they had to resist and reject. An “independent review” for a community-related question is not a pre-defined and pre-formulated plan prepared in isolation from the community and conducted by “independent people.” It is rather an “independent plan” developed and defined by “independent people” who believe in community engagement in order to truly and comprehensively address the complexity of the question and meet the concerns of the community.

If we add to the non-transparent, non-participatory and exclusionary nature of the review the instruction of “don’t dig into the dirt,” it is hard to believe that it is, and will be, an “independent review.”

Now, the committee, I guess, is facing a difficult situation. If they step back and withdraw, then the committee may feel its scientific integrity is in danger, because they have failed to play an independent role in defining the question and developing relevant methods to address the question, but just accepted the politicians’ instructions.

This will also harm UC’s reputation, because it sends this signal to the wider community that it is easy to involve UC researchers into a political game. If the committee decides to go forward and deliver the review results on time based on the existing plan, it will not be well received by the community. If you want to know why, just listen to the recordings of the meeting.

And if they want to revise the plan to make it more comprehensive and collect new data (this is what the city does not want, I believe, because they don’t want the committee to dig into the dirt!), then the review will enter into a long and complex procedure that may take several months, if not years, and demands many resources. So, neither of these possible scenarios have a happy end! And this is the nature of jumping into a “toxic land”; you get lost and there is no safe exit.

The Hunters Point Shipyard is not a normal toxic land; it is a “toxic maze.” And the city was responsible for turning the “toxic land” into a “toxic maze.” You have to get prepared before entering into it! And when you are not prepared, you will get lost!

I personally don’t have a magic compass that can guide the committee to the safe exit, but I guess there is one path that is less harmful to the community and the committee: Withdraw from conducting the instructed plan of review, unless the city agrees that you develop a real and functioning “independent review.” If they accept – and I doubt they will – then you are back to the beginning. This time walk carefully into the toxic maze of the Hunters Point Shipyard! Do everything right, right from the beginning!

M. Reza Shirazi is Marie Curie Global Fellow at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) at UC Berkeley and a Reader at the School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He is principle investigator of the European Union project “Socio-Spatial Justice in Urban Neighborhoods” and is experienced in coordinating and directing international partnership projects, particularly with developing countries and the Middle East. He has organized and guided numerous international events and workshops worldwide about neighborhood and community development, participation and sustainable development and can be reached at shirazi@brookes.ac.uk.