Bayview Blues

San Francisco Community Activists Fight the Navy’s Toxic Legacy

In the southern part of San Francisco Bay, a sunny, breezy peninsula known as Bayview Hunters Point provides breathtaking coastal views. The community has the highest percentage of home ownership in San Francisco, according to Cory Calandra, executive director of the Bayview-based San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. But the depressed region accepts 80 percent of San Francisco’s waste, says Calandra, and it is home to more than 300 toxic sites, including power and chemical plants, auto body shops, diesel bus depots and wrecking yards. The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which has been a National Priority List Superfund site since 1989, also poses serious, ongoing health and environmental threats to the region.

Tevin Shaquille Willis died at age five of inoperable brain cancer. Was Bayview chemical exposure to blame?© Bayview Advocates

The 493 land and 443 submerged acres of Hunters Point were used for a wide variety of industrial and shipbuilding activities. The soil and water became contaminated with some 200 different toxins, including fuels, pesticides, heavy metals, asbestos, volatile organic compounds and radioactive materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Vessels involved in nuclear weapons testing were decontaminated at the site, and hazardous materials were stored in tanks and in the site landfill. In 1946, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory was established on the premises "to research the effects of nuclear weapons," writes the Navy.

Studies conducted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health found that Bayview has suffered a higher incidence of asthma and breast and cervical cancer than the rest of the state. "The tragedy of living in this contaminated community is that we have to watch our children get sick from it," says Jesse Mason, a long-time resident and member of the Navy’s Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which includes city, state and federal officials as well as local residents.

Mason’s nephew, Tevin Shaquille Willis, died of inoperable brain stem cancer at age five, even though cancer does not run in his family. The boy, who lost his equilibrium and swelled to a weight of 160 pounds at the end of his life, had grown up in Bayview like his mother.

Local residents see a clear connection between children’s illnesses and the poisons that permeate their neighborhood. However, "the Navy has deliberately stalled in its responsibilities to clean up the shipyard," says Calandra. The Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, which recently disbanded, called the Navy’s toxic legacy "an example of blatant environmental racism."

The Bayview community is 90 percent non-white and 50 percent African-American, reflecting a mosaic of new residents. The neighborhood had been 80 percent black in previous decades, according to Executive Director Olin Webb of the Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates. The 1,000-member group is working to "repair the damage done by decades of injustice against our black community," says Webb. Despite the overall strength of the Bay Area economy, Bayview suffers from a staggering 60 percent unemployment rate. Many of the residents had settled in the area to work in the shipyard, and the region never recovered when the Navy shut down most of its operations in 1974.

In contrast, affluent Pacific Heights recently benefited when the Army transferred the Presidio of San Francisco to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Army spent $260 million cleaning up the base. Calandra notes angrily that "the Navy wants to spend the same amount to clean up Hunters Point, even though the shipyard is much more contaminated." She adds that of the $160 million spent so far, $110 million has gone to studies and bureaucracy.

"This inequity made a lot of people mad," says Alex Lantsberg, program and development coordinator for ARC Ecology, a San Francisco-based organization that provides technical assistance to communities that suffer economic and environmental hardships from military base closings.

In 1992, the Navy signed a Federal Facilities Agreement with the EPA and the state of California to coordinate the environmental investigation and cleanup. As soon as the remediation is finished, the military will transfer the entire property to the city of San Francisco. But EPA Project Manager Claire Trombadore says, "We have been very limited in our regulatory authority over the Navy. Disputes and negotiations have slowed down the process."

Starting in January 1999, the Navy illegally halted all cleanup operations at Hunters Point for a period of 19 months. According to Trombadore and Webb, the military didn’t inform the EPA or the community of their actions. "The Navy’s assessment had been so bad that they only got half the work done at twice the cost. After more radioactive contamination was found, they just stopped working," says Lantsberg. Trombadore says the EPA was unable to convince the Navy to resume operations until a successful federal lawsuit by ARC Ecology, the Bayview Advocates and RAB member Jill Fox.

In 2000, the Navy incurred a $25,000 fine from the EPA for failing to notify anyone that an underground fire was raging for weeks in the Hunters Point landfill. Since then, the landfill has been capped. To date, some tanks and hazardous materials have been removed and some of the tainted soil has been cleaned. The least-contaminated parts of the shipyard are nearly ready for transfer, "but the worst parts are still very polluted," says Webb.

The Community First Coalition for Hunters Point, which includes the Bayview Advocates, ARC Ecology and other groups, recently waged an intensive and successful campaign to get a proposition on the San Francisco ballot. Proposition P, which mandated a total cleanup to residential standards rather than the proposed mixed industrial and residential standard, passed by an 86 percent margin. Environmental Public Affairs Officer Lee Saunders, a San Diego-based civilian employee of the Navy, says, "We will address the community’s concerns and reevaluate our efforts."

Mason believes it will be a challenge to keep the Navy on task at Hunters Point, and Webb says his group wants to make sure the community isn’t overrun by gentrification once the cleanup is complete. Given the area’s high property values and the gap in wages between the working class and high-tech professionals, says Webb, "Many people will want to come here when we have a beautiful shoreline again." Although the city’s development strategy calls for affordable housing, public transportation, a marketplace, a light industrial complex and parks, Webb says his community will transform into a vibrant, thriving neighborhood only if the residents themselves can make crucial planning decisions.