Contamination, de-contamination and the dilemma of distrust at the Hunters Point shipyard

The Hunters Point Shipyard Project is part of the Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard Development Plan, which aims at creating around 12,000 homes and several million square feet of retail, entertainment, hotel, office and open space. – Photo: M. Reza Shirazi

by M. Reza Shirazi, UC Berkeley

“The fraud and uncertainty surrounding Tt EC’s work at HPNS [Hunters Point Naval shipyard] has caused a complete loss of trust in the Navy by the local community.”

“The fraud has also caused a loss of confidence by the regulatory community (both EPA and California state regulators) regarding the Navy’s radiological remediation program and the Navy’s competence to implement it.”

“The EPA has expressed to the Navy that they no longer have confidence in the work performed by Tt EC at HPNS, as well as at other Navy radiological sites including those located at Treasure Island and Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

“The Navy now faces an uphill struggle to rehabilitate itself from this negative connotation in the regulatory community. It will take years to rebuild this credibility.”

“The fraud committed by Mr. Hubbard and others has undermined the taxpayer’s trust in the Navy as a good financial steward.” (emphasis added)

These words do not come from a frustrated Bayview Hunters Point resident who has been disappointed by the remediation work in the shipyard. Nor are they from an activist who wants to bring into the public attention the misconduct of Tetra Tech and the failure of the Navy and other regulatory agencies in overseeing the remediation work. Nor are they from a local journalist who wants to make headlines in the media and enhance his reputation.

These words are excerpts from a letter that Laura Duchnak, director of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program, wrote on March 15, 2018, to the United States District Court, Northern District of California. In this letter, she requested from the court a severe sentence for Justin Hubbard, radiation control technician with Tetra Tech, who was accused of conducting fraud in the shipyard.

Justin Hubbard and his colleague Stephen Rolfe were sentenced to eight months in prison. In this letter, we also read: “To date, the Navy has paid Tt EC $261.8M for work performed at HPNS. Due to the uncovered fraud, all of this work has been called into question and may need to be re-performed.”

Here I cited Laura Duchnak to leave no doubt that the fraud “caused a complete loss of trust in the Navy by the local community.” And with this clear statement from the Navy, I as a researcher don’t need to provide extensive evidence and multiple sources to prove my words: The Navy admitted that there is complete “distrust” between the community members as well as all regulatory agencies and the Navy, at least at the time the letter was issued.

I have already noted that the shipyard is a contaminated land, but the chemical and radioactive contamination is the easy part of this contamination, which could be, though only after expending hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of years of real remediation work, one day, hopefully, cleaned up. The shipyard is also contaminated by a “distrust” that is even more dangerous than radioactive materials.

Radioactivity can be scanned, found and removed because it is an object buried in the land, but distrust is a subjective construct spread throughout the social life, present in people’s minds and settled into the collective memory. These two types of contamination have one thing in common: Both have been generated, produced and expanded by the Navy, though, for the latter, namely “distrust,” the City of San Francisco, involved regulatory agencies and Tetra Tech have made a significant contribution!

Distrust is not a perception that develops suddenly: it is generated, shaped and consolidated over time. Here I don’t want to provide a chronological account of the construction and production of distrust around the shipyard project. But I would like to analyse two documents that show a critical moment in the evolution of distrust.

To evaluate the performance of remedies implemented at the shipyard and verify if they remain protective of human health and the environment, the Navy prepares five-year reviews of the cleanup project. The Final Fourth Five-Year Review was published in July 2019 – a draft of fourth final review was available in July 2018 – and the third review, jointly prepared by Tetra Tech, was published in 2013.

One important observation is that in the final version of the Fourth Five-Year Review, the Navy finally admitted that data falsification and manipulation have taken place and used clear language to report that. The draft version (2018) says:

“In January 2018, the Navy determined that a significant portion of the radiological survey and remediation work completed to date was compromised by potential manipulation and/or falsification of data by one of its radiological remediation contractors. Compromised data were identified in reports associated with Parcels B-1, B-2, C, D-2, E, G, UC-1, UC-2, and UC-3.”

Hunters Point residents protest in front of Tetra Tech’s San Francisco office on July 2, 2018. According to an EPA report, in two parcels, B an G, on which Tetra Tech conducted remediation work, over 90 percent of survey units are suspect. – Photo: M. Reza Shirazi

But in the final version (2019) we read:

“In January 2018, the Navy determined that a significant portion of the radiological survey and remediation work completed to date was not reliable because of manipulation and/or falsification of data by one of its radiological remediation contractors. Radiological data identified in reports associated with Parcels B-1, B-2, C, D-2, E, G, UC-1, UC-2, and UC-3 were deemed unreliable.”

As can be seen, “being compromised by potential manipulation and/or falsification of data” has been changed to “not reliable because of manipulation and/or falsification of data.” Moreover, it has been clarified that radiological data were deemed “unreliable.” This, I would argue, shows the Navy’s long-standing approach to the cleanup project: underreporting misconduct, underestimating evidences of wrong-doing, trying to fix things behind the scene in the absence of the public, and thus showcasing the remediation work as acceptable and correct.

It was only after consistent critiques by other regulatory agencies and the public that the Navy finally changed the language of the Fourth Five-Year Review. Tetra Tech, however, has always defended the work, called all the accusations allegations and, in a letter that was attached to the Final Fourth Five-Year Review, stated that the Navy’s description of data falsification in the draft Fourth Five-Year Review – which as I showed above was much softer than the final version – is misleading and inaccurate.

But the most important parts of these reports relevant to my discussion here are the interview sections. In both reviews, officials and community members were interviewed. An analysis of the interviews is very telling!

In 2013 review, officials and members of the regulatory agencies are brief in their response and supportive of the Navy. However, in the 2019 review they provide more details, appear critical and show sympathy with the community. In the 2019 review, officials call for “greater oversight” and “open communication.”

Officials also confirm that they have received frequent and strong complains from the community regarding the potential falsification and violation of environmental codes. According to the EPA site manager, “The predominant concern in the last five years by far has been the falsification of radiological data by Tetra Tech EC Inc.” A project manager from DTSC (California Department of Toxic Substances Control) also confirms that they have received numerous inquiries and requests to play a more active role with regard to the soil falsification issue and the Navy’s remediation performance.

In the 2019 review, community members use strong words such as “total fraud,” “massive fraud,” “scandal,” “beyond terrible” and “awful” to describe the shipyard remediation project. Some key words appear regularly, such as lack of trust, lack of transparency, fraud and the demand for re-testing Parcel A. Community members complain about the lack of transparency and make statements such as “No transparency at all” and “The Navy has done a terrible job of informing us.” They also talk about the loss of trust: “Navy’s actions are untrustworthy” and “Lost all trust in the integrity.” They demand open communication, re-testing Parcel A and more transparency.

The table below shows how officials and community members responded when they were asked to explain their overall impression of the cleanup work at the shipyard in 2013 and 2019. This comparison shows that while in 2013 review officials admire Navy’s cleanup efforts and find it satisfactorily, in 2019 review they express mix impressions: they admire but are critical and make suggestions for improvement. On the contrary, community members were not very critical in 2013 review but had some concerns. However, in 2019 review they are not only critical but outrageous. They use very strong and clear words to express their anger and dissatisfaction with what has happened in the shipyard, very much affected by the revelation of the fraud and data falsification.

To understand this shift, we need some context. By the time of the publication of the Third Five-Year Review (2013), Tetra Tech was conducting remediation work on the shipyard. The Navy has found some discrepancies in the collected data and has asked Tetra Tech for clarification. We know that after two years, Tetra Tech did a self-investigation, accused “rogue” employees of wrongdoing and claimed that they have conducted corrective action.

It seems that the Navy and other regulatory agencies were happy with this clarification, because the Navy continued working with Tetra Tech, and other regulatory agencies did not oppose it. Whistleblowers started to come forward, file lawsuits against Tetra Tech and appear in the media in 2013 and 2014. But all this happened without extensive public attention. Except for some community activists, whistleblowers and non-profit organizations that kept being suspicious about the cleanup, and were largely ignored, public awareness remained limited.

But by the time of publication of the Fourth Five-Year Review in 2018-2019, we faced a totally different environment. In late 2017 and early 2018, report after report became available to the public that showed the high volume of wrongdoing in the cleanup of the shipyard.

The call to this protest at Lennar’s Shipyard Welcome Center, on Sept. 9, 2018, read: “Stop Pollution and Gentrification! Clean Up the Hunters Point Shipyard Superfund Site!” – Photo: M. Reza Shirazi

On April 9, 2018, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) published an EPA letter, dated Dec. 27, 2017, which stated that in two parcels, B and G, which together make up approximately 40 percent of the total radiological soil survey units that Tetra Tech worked on at the shipyard, over 90 percent of survey units are suspect.

The conclusion: “In summary, the data analyzed demonstrate a widespread pattern of practices that appear to show deliberate falsification, failure to perform the work in a manner required to ensure ROD [Record of Decision] requirements were met, or both.” Tetra Tech rejected these reports and defended the cleanup work: “We are proud of our high standards and professionalism on this contract and all the work we perform for clients. Equally important, we have worked to make this site, and all sites where Tetra Tech works, safe for community members and residents.”  

Local and national media published article after article, two Tetra Tech radiation control technicians were sentenced to eight months in prison and assessed a fine of $10,000 and $2,000 for falsifying shipyard cleanup records, and a City Hall hearing took place on May 14, 2018. Within this context, strong reaction of the community members and their frustration with the cleanup project, led by the Navy and supervised by the regulatory agencies, is quite understandable.

And it is also understandable why Laura Duchnak in her letter talks about the lack of trust – “complete loss of trust in the Navy by the local community.” Not only the Navy, but other authorities who closed their eyes to the community concerns or paid little attention to them were part of the construction of distrust.

Malia Cohen, then District 10 supervisor, talked about the lack of trust at the City Hall hearing: “For years, I have heard very real fears from the community and very little appropriate response from the Navy or other federal agencies … Public trust has been completely eroded by this terribly opaque process.” Yes. It was too late! Distrust is the dominant paradigm!

One note should be made here. These two documents show that “distrust” explicitly and clearly dominated the community’s perception of the cleanup project. But as I said, distrust is not generated and constructed overnight, but over time.

The emergence of distrust goes back to the early stages of the remediation project in the 1990s and later evolved rapidly in the 2000s. Here I should cite Tony Kelly and Marie Harrison, who rightly noted in a Chronicle article that the community had lost its trust in the cleanup long before: “While the Navy announced last week, ‘We have lost confidence in Tetra Tech data,’ the communities of Bayview Hunters Point lost confidence in the shipyard cleanup a long time ago.”

As noted here, it is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the evolution of distrust with regard to the shipyard project. But one event was a turning point and needs to be mentioned: dissolution of the Hunters Point Shipyard RAB (Restoration Advisory Board) in 2009.

Established in 1994 in accordance with 32 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 202, the purpose of RAB was to involve different stakeholders in the restoration process of the shipyard. It provided a planform for direct engagement by community members in the cleanup project.

I don’t want to go into details of the dissolution and analyze the RAB’s contentions atmosphere and the Navy’s arguments for dissolving the RAB. But dissolution of the RAB contributed to the growing distrust: The Navy dissolved the only direct oversight mechanism and hence prevented active engagement of community members with the decision making processes.

The alternatives the Navy proposed for public engagement were not real participation, but a passive involvement through conventional tools such as public meetings, emailing, presentations etc. The result was the consolidation of growing distrust, which reached its zenith in 2018 after the mainstream media’s revelation of fraud. In fact, what the Navy characterized in the letter of 2018 as a “complete loss of trust in the Navy by the local community” was a long time in the making.

What should be done in an atmosphere of distrust? Laura Duchnak in her letter rightly wrote that it will take years to rebuild credibility. But here the question is, now that the Navy admitted the loss of trust in the Navy by the local community, what are the extra measures taken by the Navy to remediate the trust.

We know that they are busy preparing new plans for some parcels, are determined to enhance oversight standards by hiring third party oversight etc. But the question is whether these measures are appropriate and sufficient for a situation of crisis.

If distrust is a crisis, corrective measures should be immediate, extensive and extraordinary to address the very state of crisis. As far as community engagement is concerned, the Navy continues with the old policy of using passive involvement tools, as documented in the Community Involvement Plan that leave very limited space for active engagement and direct participation in decision-making. This offers little to remediate distrust. And there is no sign of improvement.

But the Navy can do one thing that could be understood in the direction of remediation of distrust: re-establish the RAB. On Sept. 17, 2019, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, the Bayview Hunters Point Mothers and Fathers Committee, Literacy for Environmental Justice, Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates and 240 members of the Bayview Hunters Point community submitted a petition to the Navy requesting it re-establish the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard RAB. This clearly demonstrates that there is sufficient and sustained community interest as required by law for re-establishing the RAB.

I would like to urge the Navy to take necessary steps towards re-establishing the RAB. This could be seen by the community members as a step in the right direction. However, the re-establishment of the RAB will be helpful if both the Navy and the community take lessons from the mistakes of the previous RAB:

Only a functional and reliable RAB that maximizes collaboration between all the parties can serve the community. This will not be an easy task for the new RAB. How the new RAB should function and what should be the lessons learned is what we can elaborate on when the Navy first agrees to re-establish the RAB.

Distrust is omnipresent with regard to the shipyard project. It is a crisis that demands extra measures to be tackled. A main cause of such a crisis is the fact that the community feels excluded from the decision-making processes and that the wrongdoing has been covered up. Any remediation of omnipresent distrust must involve the direct, active participation of community members. The re-establishment of the RAB would be only a step forward – but a quite significant one!

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.