Power concedes nothing without a demand: Community demands reinstatement of Hunters Point Shipyard RAB

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

In a letter to BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Director Laura Duchnak dated Sept. 17, 2019, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, the Bayview Hunters Point Mothers and Fathers Committee, Literacy for Environmental Justice and Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates submitted a formal request to reestablish the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board (RAB).

The demand for reinstatement of the RAB was fortified by a petition signed and circulated by 240 Bayview Hunters Point residents, meeting Department of Defense regulations’ proof of “sufficient and sustained community interest.”

Lennar chose to cut down 35 feet of Hunters Point Hill where Parcel A abuts the Black low-income Hunters Point neighborhood to create a grade separation between the two, intending to distract the public and potential homebuyers from any concern about living close to Black poverty. – Photo: Paul Chinn, SF Chronicle

“Sufficient community interest” is a key factor that must be assessed for reestablishing the RAB. Community interest in the Navy’s environmental restoration activities has always existed and has increased in recent years. The Navy is required to assess community interest regularly and should reestablish the RAB where that interest is “sufficient and sustained.”

According to the Restoration Advisory Board Implementation Guidelines published Sept. 27, 1994, by the Department of Defense and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, DoD policy resulting from participation in the Federal Facilities Environmental Restoration Dialogue Committee calls for the establishment of RABs to be formed at all closing installations where the local community expresses interest.

RABs offer an opportunity for communities to improve the cleanup process by “increasing community understanding and support for cleanup efforts, improving the soundness of government decisions and ensuring cleanups are conducted safely, are protective of public health and are responsive to community needs.

Hunters Point Naval Shipyard extent of radiological contamination

The Aug. 25, 2004, edition of the SF Bay View newspaper includes an article I authored titled “The Rabble-Rousers.”

“(R)abble (rab- el) 1. a disorderly crowd or mob 2. the common people rabble-rouser (rou- zer), a person who stirs the passions or prejudices of the public” is the definition in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary.

“The Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board enjoys a celebrated history of rambunctious activism and boisterous dissent. The RAB has emerged as an increasingly high profile source of political embarrassment and challenge to the U.S Navy, environmental regulators and San Francisco city government. Like the new “Untouchables,” the RAB assumed the conscience of the Bayview Hunters Point community in matters pertaining to the cleanup of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard,” I wrote.

“Reestablishing the RAB is necessary for rebuilding trust with the community.”

The RAB was dissolved in a September 2009 letter signed by Duchnak during a period of raucous conflict between the Navy, community residents, scientists and environmental activists, city government and regulators over ongoing community exposures to toxic dust generated by Lennar’s residential development on former shipyard Parcel A.

Between 2006 and 2007, Lennar excavated 1.2 million cubic yards of earth on land delisted from a federal Superfund site with an EPA assigned Hazard Index of 100 for groundwater migration.

SLAM Coalition reveals email EPA-SFDPH conspiracy to cover up Lennar’s Hunters Point Shipyard asbestos exposure exceedances

Duchnak objected to the unanimously adopted RAB resolution calling for a civil grand jury investigation into collusion between RAB environmental regulators and representatives of Lennar developers. Duchnak objected to the Jan. 22, 2009, unanimously adopted vote by the RAB to unseat DPH regulator Amy Brownell. The EPA objected to the Navy’s 2009 unilateral decision to dissolve the RAB

Emails obtained by the Stop Lennar Action Movement under the Freedom of Information Act document a 2009 criminal conspiracy between Brownell, EPA Project Manager Mark Ripperda and Jeff Austin of Lennar Corp. to minimize, cover up and conceal community-wide exposures to asbestos- and particulate-containing dust.

Ripperda was ultimately removed from his EPA role, while Brownell remains a subject of a licensing board investigation and mounting community, city government and media mistrust of her role as DPH representative for the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNS). Brownell is compensated by Lennar via Article 31 of the Health Code, adopted with the Parcel A transfer in 2004 and expanded to include the entire shipyard following dissolution of the RAB in 2009.

In June of 2011, the Civil Grand Jury issued a report that predicted the plan to build more than 10,000 new homes at the shipyard could prove to be San Francisco’s “worse ever development disaster.” Additionally the jury determined the relationship between the Department of Public Health and the shipyard’s master developer represents a conflict of interest in which “the City has placed itself in a potentially compromising situation with Lennar where in essence the wolf is paying the shepherd to guard the flock.”

This photo, taken in July 2016, shows some of the first condos completed by Lennar at the shipyard. Lennar has renamed its development the San Francisco Shipyard in order to avoid using the old name, Hunters Point, which is associated by the public with Black people. – Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small, KQED

Community acceptance is one of nine major criteria the federal Superfund law declares must be considered before a cleanup plan is accepted at the Hunters Point Shipyard. On Nov. 8, 2000, 86 percent of the San Francisco electorate voted yes in support of the Proposition P citizens’ initiative – spearheaded by the Community First Coalition – calling for a full cleanup to residential standards of the Hunters Point Shipyard.

In a breakthrough for environmental health and justice, on Sept. 13, 2016, Angeles Herrera of the Superfund Division of the Region 9 EPA, in alliance with Janet Naito, branch chief of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, directed a letter to Lawrence Lansdale, environmental director of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, memorializing the agreement: “The Navy will not propose any further transfers of Navy property at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard without results of investigations necessary to clarify the actual potential public exposure to radioactive material at and near HPNS.”

Reestablishing the RAB is necessary for rebuilding trust with the community. This is the conclusion reached by the coalition of environmental, health and legal experts who worked in solidarity with 240 Bayview Hunters Point residents and activists in demanding reinstatement of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board.

As stated above, among the purposes of a RAB are providing an “opportunity for stakeholder involvement, a forum for addressing issues associated with environmental restoration” and continued exchange of information, and an opportunity for community members’ comments to receive “careful consideration” by the Navy. Dissolving the RAB undermined all of these processes, and the time is past due for the Navy to reestablish this cooperative forum with stakeholders and members of the community.

In fact, the Navy appears to be in violation of the regulatory requirement to “reassess community interest at least every 24 months.” It has been over a decade since Laura Duchnak signed the Navy’s Letter of Intent to Dissolve the RAB.

If the Navy truly wants to start to rebuild the shattered trust of the community, reestablishing the RAB would be a positive step in the right direction.

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 asumchai@gmail.com. Dr. Sumchai is also president and medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, an author and a UCSF and Stanford trained researcher.