Eliminating dissent

Pub date June 17, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan


For years, the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board has served as the Bayview-Hunters Point community’s main voice in the U.S. Navy’s environmental cleanup plans for the toxic former naval station. But the committee is suddenly being disbanded just as the cleanup enters a crucial phase.

Used for shipbuilding and submarine maintenance and repair, and the decontamination, storage, and disposal of radioactive and atomic weapons testing materials, the shipyard was added to the Superfund national toxic site cleanup list in 1989. But it is also at the heart of where Mayor Gavin Newsom has partnered with Lennar Corp. on the city’s biggest development proposal, involving 10,500 homes and a new stadium for the 49ers.

As the Navy prepares to release a series of important studies and reports concerning the cleanup of the dirtiest parcels on the former shipyard, community members were outraged by the Navy’s announcement in late May that it is preparing to dissolve the RAB in the next 30 days.

In July the Navy will release draft feasibility studies for the cleanup of Parcel E, along with a final remedial investigation/feasibility study for Parcel E2, the dirtiest parcel on the base, and a radiological data-gathering investigation in the sediment surrounding Parcel F, which is the underwater portion of the base.

Some insiders say the announcement was not unexpected, given an escautf8g series of confrontational RAB meetings with the Navy over the last two years. But they fear the community will lose its ability to give the Navy direct, timely, and meaningful feedback, even if many believe the Navy wasn’t listening.

"The Navy fully supports the need for open, meaningful dialogue with the diverse Bayview-Hunters Point community regarding our environmental cleanup actions and decisions. However, the RAB is not fulfilling this objective," the Navy’s Laura Duchnak wrote in a May 22 letter to the RAB.

In her letter, Duchnak said the RAB meetings no longer provide community input on the Navy’s environmental cleanup program, that their atmosphere is not productive to effective public discourse, and that Navy attempts to improve the process have failed. "The revised community involvement program may include community environmental forums, including using Internet-based technologies to more easily reach a diverse audience, expanded monthly progress reports and fact sheets, and hosting technical discussions and tours of cleanup sites for interested community members," Duchnak wrote.

Duchnak’s announcement followed a tense January meeting in which RAB members reacted with horror when the Navy announced it was moving forward with controversial plans to cap radiologically-affected areas on the shipyard’s Parcel B instead of digging and hauling them, which the community preferred (see "Nuclear Fallout," 07/16/08).

Led by RAB co-chair Leon Muhammad, who teaches at the Nation of Islam’s Center for Self Improvement, which has been repeatedly dusted by unmonitored asbestos (see "The corporation that ate San Francisco," 03/17/07), and joined by newly sworn-in members Archbishop King, Marie Harrison, and Daniel Landry, the board voted to seek a civil grand jury investigation into whether local truckers are getting their fair share of the Navy’s shipyard contracts.

Members then voted to remove the city’s public health representative Amy Brownell from the RAB, and to call for the stoppage of all work on the yard until the Department of Defense, the Navy, and the city can prove, as Muhammad said, "where the ongoing dust exceedences are coming from."

The final straw, insiders say, occurred in February when members voted to remove the Navy’s RAB co-chair Keith Forman from the advisory board. Eric Smith, who was sworn onto the RAB in January but did not vote to remove Brownell and Forman, said the Navy’s dissolution response wasn’t surprising.

"The dissolution of RAB is not a good thing in terms of what it is supposed to do. But it was also doing things that were dysfunctional," Smith said. "The bitter irony is that the folks who caused the trouble were trying to get the Navy to sit up and take notice."

Smith said there is frustration with the Navy’s communication style, which the community feels is patronizing. "But the RAB was naïve to think the Navy would allow a forum over which it has unilateral authority to become a platform for attacks," Smith said.

RAB member Kristine Enea, who missed the RAB’s last two meetings, confirmed that the atmosphere got increasingly confrontational but added that the Navy ignored suggestions her calls for wider community involvement.

"It’s ironic that the Navy had decided to respond to criticisms, which include the charge that it is a poor communicator, by cutting off communications with the community," said Enea, who works at the India Basin Neighborhood Association. "Dissolving the RAB is a drastic step. There is so much going on, and so much that we need to know."

But Enea hopes IBNA can help fill that void, noting that the association has applied for a US Environmental Protection Agency technical assistant grant to review shipyard clean-up documents, provide fact sheets, and host community meetings.

The Sierra Club’s Arthur Feinstein said that his group’s main concern around the dissolution is that Parcel E2, which contains an industrial and radiologically-impacted dump that burned for six months in 2000, and Parcel F are both coming up for analysis.

"These are some of the most significantly contaminated areas on the shipyard, so the timing is terrible," Feinstein told the Guardian, observing that some RAB members did not appear to be looking for solutions and were so aggressive they destroyed meetings.

"Unfortunately there weren’t enough forceful people to say ‘shut up and sit down,’" Feinstein said. "But without a RAB, there will be no public forum where folks are able to get and read materials ahead of the meeting, and then ask and submit questions."

Harrison, a member of the environmental justice group Green Action, believes the Navy’s intent is that there be no meaningful interaction with the community. "When you don’t toe the line and play like good little children, the Navy shuts you down," said Harrison, whose group, along with the Nation of Islam and the Caravan for Justice, are planning a June 30 demonstration at the shipyard to protest the move.

In another point of controversy, Sen. Mark Leno has legislation that seeks to trade 25 percent of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, the only major piece of open space in the Bayview, for small strips on the shipyard so Lennar can build condos on the parkland.

Noting that Sen. Leland Yee and Assembly Members Tom Ammiano and Fiona Ma oppose the parks-for-condos plan (see "Going Nuclear," April 29), Harrison said, "What possessed anyone to believe that we’d say, okay, take the only open space in the Bayview, and in exchange we’ll accept contaminated land scattered around on the shipyard?"

Environmental advocates believe the Sierra Club intends to fight Leno’s legislation with a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act, but Leno told the Guardian that he is "continuing to work and meet with the lobbyists for the Sierra Club here in Sacramento to see if there are any additional amendments we can take that would get them to a neutral position on the bill.

"I think there is a good possibility we can get there," Leno said.

In February, Arc Ecology released a 133-report titled "Alternatives for study" that recommended the removal of the Parcel E2 landfill and explored changes in land use arrangements in the current redevelopment proposal to avoid environmental impacts (see "Concrete Plans," Feb. 4). Unfortunately, they were largely ignored by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which is working with Lennar on the public-private development deal.

Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom remains undaunted, recalling how 87 percent of voters citywide supported Proposition P, an advisory measure he wrote and that then-Sups. Ammiano, Leno, Michael Yaki, and the late Sue Bierman placed on the ballot in 1989 to establish community acceptance criteria for the shipyard, under federal toxic cleanup guidelines.

"The Navy had offered their opinion that voters in San Francisco, and especially in the Bayview, would accept a nonresidential industrial level cleanup for the shipyard because they were primarily interested in jobs," Bloom recalled. "We said that this was a mischaracterization and we’d go ahead and prove them wrong."

He believes the current struggle with the Navy over the RAB, and with the city and Lennar over Arc’s alternatives, are "emblematic of the problem facing the Bayview with regard to accessing good information and being told the straight story on health and development issues."