University of California’s disservice to the Bayview Hunters Point community

Dr. Leon Muhammad (left) chairs a meeting of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) on June 26, 2008. RAB meetings were a place for community members to engage and debate with Navy and other experts on a wide variety of issues around cleanup, access to cleanup jobs by the community and concerns about community health. RAB was dissolved by the Navy in 2009. A petition signed by 240 Bayview Hunters Point residents in 2019 to re-establish the RAB was rejected by the Navy. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa 

Dr. Balmes was a paid consultant for Lennar, despite his denial

by M. Reza Shirazi

Nine months ago, a panel of UC experts released the results of a review about the retesting procedures for Parcel A and Parcel G in the Hunters Point Shipyard. Now, nine months after the release of the results, it is time to ask what was the benefit of the report for the Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) community, and what was the contribution of the review to the question of safety at the shipyard? Nothing!

Mayor London Breed in her 2019 State of the City address announced that a panel of experts from UCB and UCSF will review the procedures used by the Department of Public Health during 2018 for retesting Parcel A and new plans for Parcel G after the Navy and EPA reported that Tetra Tech had falsified data with regard to the shipyard remediation project. On April 17, 2019, a press release from the Mayor’s Office provided more details.

Panel members were John Balmes, MD, Tom McKone, PhD, Kirk Smith, PhD, and Kai Vetter, PhD, all senior experts from UCSF and UCB. A two-page document explained the scope of the review. I published an article and criticized the review for being limited in scope, non-transparent and exclusive and proposed some recommendations for improvement, all ignored by the committee.

On July 17, 2019, Dr. Balmes gave a presentation to the Hunters Pont Shipyard Citizens Advisory Board’s Environmental and Reuse Subcommittee with the aim of hearing directly from community members and listening to their concerns. This meeting shed light on the nature of the review: Attendees questioned the scope of the work, challenged the sufficiency of the charge and raised concerns about the independence of the review.

A UC student would fail if he/she submitted a similar paper to any of the committee members, for the lack of scientific methodology, solid discussion, valid argumentation and proper referencing.

The committee pursued the original agenda as requested by the city and did not made any change to accommodate community and expert concerns. Nobody heard about the committee until the review report was released on Jan. 17, 2020. The report concluded “the gamma scanning of the surface soil of Parcel A performed by the Radiological Health Branch of the CDPH to be appropriate as a health and safety survey” and claimed “the planned approach to retesting of Parcel G to be appropriate if the final plan meets with EPA approval.”

I called the review prepared by the committee a “bad practice” and argued that the review panel failed to conduct a standard study that respects community concerns and takes into account the complexity of the context, and noted that the committee members intentionally decided to serve as an “operator” for the city.

A weak report, with little scientific merit

I have already discussed the key problems of the review process. Here, I would like to note a significant flaw in the report itself. The report lacks any reference, clarification or discussion. It makes a bunch of claims and suggests some conclusions but does not explain what these claims and conclusions are based on.

The committee “judges” that the gamma scanning of the surface soil of Parcel A performed by the Radiological Health Branch of the CDPH, as well as the planned approach to retesting of Parcel G, are both “appropriate,” but it neither clarifies what the criteria for “appropriateness” are nor does it present any proof to support the conclusions.

I am sure that a UC student will fail if he/she submits a similar assignment or paper to any of the committee members for the lack of scientific methodology, solid discussion, valid argumentation and proper referencing! The report asks us to believe the conclusions, but it does not say why we should do so.

Maybe because it has been prepared by a panel of scientists and experts who know the truth and their judgments should be taken for granted. And community members as non-experts should be thankful and appreciative and accept the results without any doubt! But this expectation is far beyond the reality: For decades, the city and all regulatory agencies presented their arguments and judgments as scientific, prepared by experts and professionals. But they clearly failed to detect the fraud happening right before their very eyes!

Dr. Balmes was a paid consultant for Lennar, despite his denial

On Jan. 28, 2020, Supervisor Shamann Walton hosted a community meeting to discuss the report. This time, Dr, Balmes, Dr. Tom McKone and Dr. Kirk Smith were present and explained the review results. The general atmosphere was not very peaceful; Community members and many others were for the most part very critical and angry, dissatisfied with the review results, and challenged the conclusions.

Here, I don’t want to discuss what happened in this meeting, point out to the comments provided by the audience, or criticise the way committee members responded to the comments, but show how a committee member made a false statement about his relationship with Lennar.

At the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Balmes mentioned that he had been asked to provide some expert consultation advice about the hazards of the dust generated by Lennar during the grading and earthmoving activities around 2006-2007, but “just like now I was an unpaid consultant. Dr. Sumchai has accused me of being a paid consultant for Lennar. I met with Lennar, but I didn’t receive any money for that activity, just like I am not receiving any money now.” This was in response to Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai’s comment that Dr. Balmes has been paid by Lennar for his consultation work with regard to the air pollution controversy.

“Lennar has agreed to pay for my time and expenses because, as I understand it, there are no other resources to support my involvement.”

Just a couple of weeks after this meeting, while I was reviewing and analyzing hundreds of documents I collected for my research, I came across an astonishing document that proves Dr. Balmes is not telling the truth. The story goes back to 2006-2007, when Lennar was conducting massive earthmoving work as part of the construction activities on Parcel A.

Community members complained about the air pollution and dust generated by these activities. They also complained that these activities, which violate conditions proposed by the Bay Area Air Quality District’s Dust Mitigation Plan, have exposed children at the Muslim University of Islam just across the fence to toxic dust. This led to a major dispute and controversy.

African American Community Revitalization Consortium requested (see page 203 of the document) Dr. John Balmes to assess health issues raised by the community about Lennar’s construction work. This consortium clearly stated in a letter that Dr. Balmes has been paid by Lennar for this service: “Dr. Balmes conducted his investigation at our request but his time and expenses were paid for by Lennar. However, his analysis has been objective and not influenced by the company” (p. 203). In his assessment report of September 05, 2007, that addresses Dr. Arelious Walker (see page 204) from True Hope Church of God in Christ, Dr. Balmes confirms payment arrangement with Lennar:

“Also at your request, Lennar has agreed to pay for my time and expenses because, as I understand it, there are no other resources to support my involvement. I agreed to this arrangement only with the express understanding that I will provide you with an objective assessment that will be independent of Lennar and the many competing interests that have dominated the health debate to date. I committed to telling you my opinion regardless of what others, including Lennar, might think” (p. 204).

According to the report, Dr. Balmes stated, “Based on the information I have reviewed to date, the tour of the site and review of the dust abatement measures, combined with the available monitoring data, the site does not appear to present a significant long-term health risk to the community.” Dr. Balmes also agreed with DPH that “it is highly unlikely that exposure to naturally occurring asbestos from grading operations at Parcel A will create a significant risk to human health in the community.”

Although Dr, Balmes acknowledged that the Bayview Hunters Point community has long been plagued by health problems and recommends that experts remain mindful of and responsive to community health concerns, he concluded that “it is also important that we not improperly attribute the cause of these health concerns to the recent grading activities at the Shipyard. I believe that the health problems that the community is experiencing are likely caused by events and circumstances that are unrelated to Lennar’s construction activities at Hunters Point Shipyard. Many of the health concerns predate construction and involve symptoms that are not associated with exposure to naturally occurring asbestos” (p. 205). Following this report, Dr. Balmes presented his findings at a workshop hosted by the CAC on Sept. 11.

Here I don’t want to discuss whether it was morally and ethically correct to receive money from Lennar for this service in a sensitive matter in a sensitive neighbourhood. But two things are clear: First, Dr. Balmes has been paid by Lennar, despite his denial in the Jan. 28 meeting, and Dr. Sumchai was right. Second, Dr. Balmes has concluded that Lennar had no responsibility for, and is not in any way related to, the air pollution in the shipyard and the long-standing health problems the community is suffering.

“We may have done a disservice to the community.”

I emailed Dr. Balmes in March 2020 and shared this document. He responded that he didn’t remember getting any funds but confirmed that the documents prove the payment. He noted that the money did not go to him personally, but went to support Occupational and Environmental Medicine divisional needs. He also said that he should formally apologize to the community. I have not yet seen such an apology, but I am sure he will do so.

Words matter!

In the July 2019 meeting of the Hunters Pont Shipyard Citizens Advisory Board’s Environmental and Reuse Subcommittee, Dr. Balmes expressed his desire, despite the complexity of the subject, to help the community: “I know it is a complicated and contentious problem. I acknowledge that. But I wanted to be of help, not harm.”

At the Jan. 28, 2020, meeting hosted by Supervisor Shamann Walton, Dr. Smith noted: “We University of California people were not paid for this work, but it is part of our job to serve the State of California … We don’t have any stake in what happens except perhaps to protect the population.”

These two statements suggest that the committee’s intention was serving the community, helping the people and protecting them. However, this intent to be helpful and serve the community soon turned to a potential harm.

Two weeks later, in a Feb. 14, 2020, interview with NBC Bay Area, Dr. Balmes talked about the potential of disservice to the community as a result of the review: “(W)e may have done a disservice to the community in the sense that, as several people said, our report will be used by people who want to develop the shipyard as a clean bill of health, which we were not trying to give.”

It seems that the committee soon realised that their report looks to be more in favor of the developers. This interview demonstrates how fragile the panel has been in properly addressing the problem and legitimate concerns of the community and how the conclusions can be easily misused to advocate for development.

But what has made the report so open to interpretation in favor of developers and the city? There are several reasons for this, but here I would like to highlight one important factor.

In planning and urban policy disciplines, words matter! And words would matter more, when it is about the safety and health of a historically disenfranchised community like BVHP. The NBC report shows how the committee has changed the “wording” of the report:

While the early version says that topsoil scan findings were reassuring but “they do not prove that other radioactive materials may not be buried deeper in the soil of the parcel,” the final version states that “it is unlikely that radioactive materials are buried deeper in the soil of the parcel.” These two statements are not only “different”; they are contradictory with two totally contrasting indications that can lead to two different policy approaches. The early version underlines the need for further investigations and surveys, but the final version finds any further investigation unnecessary and unneeded.

This change from the early version to the final version was a favor to the city and developers, and it seems that the committee was aware, or became aware, of such potential risk. And this is the root of disservice to the community: Formulate your statements in such a way that remains open to interpretation in favor of the city and developers and, in this way, intentionally or unintentionally, raise the possibility of doing a disservice to the community. Yes, words matter, and the “wording” of the report serves the city and developers, not the community.

Disregarding committee’s recommendations

The report lists four “findings,” and the last one is what I would like to discuss here. The report states that “Communications with and engagement of community stakeholders should be improved” and suggests that “Every effort should be made to encourage the Navy to fully inform and engage the community during all stages of the retesting and remediation process. Community access to qualified independent experts would be helpful in this regard.”

It was recommended to encourage the Navy to more actively engage the community, but the Navy nonetheless rejected a petition to reinstate the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board (RAB).

The report presents the lack of effective community engagement and the need for active involvement as a “finding.” Dr. Smith in the Jan. 28 meeting referred to the need for community engagement as “the most important finding.”

But, interestingly, this is not what the committee has found as the result of their review; it has been found by the community for decades, and has been a long-standing cry and demand of the community members. I have already discussed some aspects of this problem. Let’s welcome such a recommendation.

But here is the interesting point: Just a couple of months after the release of the report that recommended making every possible effort to encourage the Navy to more actively engage the community, the Navy rejected a petition to reinstate the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which was dissolved in 2009.

To legitimize this rejection, the Navy referred to the results of a survey in which out of more than 15,350 members of the community who received the invitation to participate, only 40 people responded – less than 0.3 percent. This action by the Navy can be read as a clear message to the committee that their recommendation is baseless and irrelevant, and there will be no change in community engagement strategy.

I would like to ask the committee members if they have commented on the Navy’s decision that clearly contrasts with their recommendations. Do they believe that the Navy’s decision based on a survey with 0.3 response rate has enough scientific significance to be used as the main reference point for an important decision?

Did they announce any reaction to this decision? Did they discuss at least writing a letter to the Navy or to the city to criticize disregarding the review results?

The review was flawed from the beginning and now is a flawed creature in the hands of the committee and the city.

Do they have any plan to ever do any follow-up meeting (virtually) with the community to make sure that their recommendation for more public engagement will be considered? If yes, would they make such communications public? If not, why do they remain so irresponsible about the effectiveness and impact of their recommendations?

In my Aug. 19 article, I briefly challenged the Navy’s decision and the credibility and validity of the survey that was used as the reference point. One week later, EPA issued a letter to Laura Duchnak, director of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program, and similarly challenged “the Navy’s reliance on relatively small-scale community surveying to justify continuing with the RAB’s dissolution.”

The letter expressed that “we are unsure if the Navy’s current community outreach and involvement program is meeting the needs of the Bayview Hunters Point community, especially in light of the surveying and evaluation process by which you decided to continue dissolution of the Restoration Advisory Board.” EPA strongly recommended completing a comprehensive evaluation of the Navy’s community outreach and involvement program before the end of the calendar year.

I do support this recommendation. And I am wondering why the committee should not send a letter to the Navy, city or whoever appropriate, to comment on the credibility and reliability of the survey, question the Navy’s decision rejecting the reestablishment of the RAB, and ask why the committee’s recommendation for more community engagement has not been addressed.

If the committee wants to do a service to the community, this could be a first step. I hope this time the committee positively considers my suggestion and does not ignore it as it did before.

Disservice of University of California to BVHP

I have already argued that the review was such a “bad practice” that university teachers can present it to their students. Now, I would also argue that the review was a “disservice” to the community, the negative consequences of which have yet to be observed.

And, interestingly. the committee was aware, or became aware, of such potential disservice as reflected in Dr. Balmes’ interview with NBC Bay Area.

Here I would like to show how Dr. Balmes’ 2007 paid consultancy was used to support the official narrative that the level of dust generated by the construction activities of Lennar did not cause harm and safety risk to the people and argue that such a thing could happen in the future for the 2019 review.

The report I mentioned above was published in 2013 about the environmental remediation of the Hunters Point Shipyard and refers to Dr. Balmes’ consultancy report to support this conclusion that “the construction work on Parcel A did not represent a significant long-term health risk to the community or workers” (p. 148).

In this report, Dr. Balmes is introduced as “one of the country’s leading public health experts on issues related to asbestos exposures and other environmental health matters” and refers to his words that he has agreed “with SFDPH that it is unlikely that exposure to naturally occurring asbestos from grading operations on Parcel A will create a significant risk to human health in the community” (pp. 148-149).

As noted, now after nine months since the publication of the report, it is hard to find a single point as a proof that the report “served” the community and was helpful to them. But the committee has expressed concerns about potential disservice to the community.

And there has been a rejection by the Navy to reinstate the RAB, which clearly disregards the committee’s call for more community engagement. We have not seen any attempt from the committee to monitor how their recommendations have been considered.

Now, I leave it to the community members to judge how the review served the community. And more importantly, I leave it to the committee members to judge whether their work was, and will be, more helpful to the community members than harmful.

And if the members of the committee disagree with my argument that the review was a disservice to the community, then I would invite them to publish an article, or make a presentation to the community and tell us about the benefits of the review to the community, and explain to us what would happen if they had not done this review.

The review, I do believe, was flawed from the beginning, and now is a flawed creature in the hands of the committee and the city.

M. Reza Shirazi is a Reader/Professor at the School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University, in the UK. He is principal investigator of the European Union funded project “Socio-Spatial Justice in Urban Neighborhoods” in collaboration with the Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) at UC Berkeley. He is an expert in neighborhood and community development, citizen participation and sustainable development, and has conducted research in different countries and regions. He can be reached at shirazi@brookes.ac.uk