By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
When land becomes scarce and housing demand is high, city and county governments find it very tempting to redevelop brownfields.
A brownfield, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
…is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. It is estimated that there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment.
The EPA promises its oversight of cleanup of brownfields, so the sites can be used for redevelopment. Cleanup includes removal and proper disposal of contaminated soil and debris, as well as removing toxins from groundwater, aquifers, bodies of water, and wetlands.
However, with millions, even billions, of dollars in real estate profits and tax revenue at stake — and the high cost of environmental cleanup getting in the way of maximizing developer profits — there’s an inherent temptation to hurry up and build on vacant parcel of land before all of the contamination is removed.
San Francisco’s Hunters Point, on the site of a former Navy Yard, is one high profile example of what can go wrong when the EPA and other public agencies put too much trust in private contractors to clean up Superfund sites. But similar brownfield sites are scattered across the U.S., and many of them have already been redeveloped, or are now being considered as sites for new residential or commercial real estate.
Brownfield sites include, for example, former industrial or manufacturing plants, automotive repair businesses and gas stations, former drilling or mining sites, or landfills. Any land use that has a history of dumping debris, working with hazardous liquids or chemicals, or discharging sludge into nearby bodies of water or soil creates a high potential for environmental toxins that are known to be hazardous to human health.
The former Naval shipyard in San Francisco was once the site of a nuclear testing lab. Radioactive toxins have been detected in soil and water samples on most of the parcels. Tetra Tech, a private contractor, was hired by the Navy to clean up the contamination. But after more than a decade and nearly $1 billion in tax dollars, former employees recently revealed that Tetra Tech submitted fake test results to environmental protection agencies — claiming parcels and water supplies are “clean” when, in fact, they are still highly contaminated.
When the whistleblowers reported that testing results of soil and water at the former Navy shipyard were faked, it prompted public outrage and litigation from Hunters Pointe residents. Nearly 400 condominiums are perched at the top of a hill on what’s known as “Parcel A,” a land parcel that critics say was never adequately tested for the presence of radioactive toxins. In light of new information revealing massive environmental fraud, homeowners and environmental groups say the residential site must be retested to determine if contaminants are present.
In the past few weeks, bad publicity for the Shipyard’s massive redevelopment plan caught the attention of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who then exerted her influence with the California Department of Public Health (DPH). DPH agreed to do a “rescan” of soil on Parcel A, the site of 400 condominium units.
However, experts say that simply scanning uncovered soil surrounding the condominium units is unlikely to detect radioactive toxins which may be buried under more than a foot of soil, that may have been covered up with asphalt or concrete pavement, or that may still lurk beneath building foundations.
Praised plan to test Hunters Point shipyard housing could miss radioactivity
“It is a PR undertaking, not a serious effort to identify whether there is contamination”
By Chris Roberts on June 22, 2018 9:15 am
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi broke the news that the area around housing built at the former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point would at last be scanned for radioactive contamination—a response to mounting demands from residents and local elected officials following revelations that the area, once part of an EPA Superfund site, was never fully screened for toxic contamination.
Exactly what the California Department of Public Health will do once work begins in July is uncertain—the agency is still “in the preliminary planning stage,” state DPH officials told Curbed SF this week—but as currently described, the rescanning could miss radioactivity potentially on-site, experts told Curbed SF.
That potential, and the warm welcome with which Pelosi and other officials greeted the still-developing plan, has fueled criticism that the rescan is a “totally inadequate” public relations stunt.
Only “uncovered ground with limited shielding from asphalt and concrete” will be scanned using sodium iodide detectors that look for gamma-ray emitting isotopes. No soil samples will be taken, according to a statement provided on June 19 to Curbed SF by Wendy Hopkins, a California DPH spokesperson.
Such a plan is “totally inadequate,” according to Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based chemist with a history of monitoring environmental disasters and who has monitored the Hunters Point cleanup saga for about a decade.
“Limiting the rescanning to only publicly accessible areas of Parcel A-1 is not acceptable,” she told Curbed SF. “The lack of sampling under structures is totally inadequate to protect populations that may live or work in the structures on the parcel.”
Contamination from radioactive or contaminated objects buried in soil has the potential to migrate to the surface over time.
As per the current plan, “if the contaminated soil/object is buried in some depth (e.g., in the order of a foot or more), the sensitivity of detecting it will be quite limited,” said Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at UC Berkeley who runs a radiation watch program at the university.
Further, since other contaminants like radium 226 emit alpha particles, “the sensitivity to detect radium will be also be limited in this way using a [sodium iodide] detector,” he added.
The shipyard is full of radium 226, a radioactive isotope used heavily by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War as glow-in-the-dark paint for gauges, deck markers, and dials. Radium 226 was also detected in sewer lines on the Parcel A hilltop in 2004, according to Bert Bowers, a former supervisor at the cleanup.“It is a PR undertaking, not a serious effort to identify whether there is contamination.” — Daniel Hirsch, retired professor of nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz
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Obviously, it would be very inconvenient for condo developers, the U.S. Navy, environmental protection agencies, and local politicians if Parcel A is found to be contaminated. Test results could indicate the need for costly cleanup, or, if cleanup is not feasible, demolition of relatively new construction.
That would be a political nightmare for anyone who has praised the virtues of redevelopment of the shipyard.
So it’s not surprising that California DPH’s current plan is a half-hearted effort to detect environmental threats that may be concealed beneath shiny new condominiums. Sadly, it’s much easier to deny potential threats, or pretend they don’t exist.
When regulatory agencies and public officials shirk their duties, hundreds or thousands of innocent, unsuspecting Americans pay the price in the form of wasted tax dollars and future liabilities.
But some individuals pay an even higher price. In addition to declining property values, some residents or workers at contaminated new construction sites experience declining health, up to and including premature death.
And for that reason alone, there is no justification for housing policy or land use administration that aids and abets environmental fraud by a private contractor.