You can’t get away with stuff like this in really any other country in the world.
The US navy is covering up dangerous levels of radioactive waste on a 40-acre former shipyard parcel in San Francisco’s waterside Hunters Point neighborhood, public health advocates charge.
The land is slated to be turned over to the city as early as next year, and could be used for residential redevelopment. The accusations stem from 2021 navy testing that found 23 samples from the property showed high levels of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope that replaces calcium in bones and causes cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency raised alarm over the levels, but the navy in 2022 said its testing was inaccurate and produced a new set of data that showed levels of strontium-90 lower than zero, which was dismissed by environmental health experts as impossible.
The EPA initially said the new testing “reads as if the navy is suppressing data results it doesn’t like”, but the agency has since been silent on the issue, and the Navy’s Office of Inspector General has refused to investigate, said Jeff Ruch, an attorney with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer) nonprofit, which has called on the inspector general to investigate.
“It’s like the navy doesn’t care what they say, and we thought it was egregious enough that the IG should look at it,” Ruch said. “Without any external examination, senior navy officials can lie to local officials and the public with impunity, knowing that there will be no negative career consequences.”
The navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and in a letter to Peer, the inspector general wrote it would not open an investigation “due to the open ligation”.
The 866-acre shipyard once held a secret navy research lab where animals were injected with strontium-90, and some officials suspect the waste was flushed down the drain. The isotope was also used to create glow-in-the-dark paint on the site, and it may have washed off ships used in testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific.
The US government in 1989 made the shipyard a “superfund” site – a designation for the nation’s most contaminated lands. Proposition P, passed by more than 86% of San Francisco voters in 2000, requires the shipyard “be cleaned to a level which would enable the unrestricted use of the property – the highest standard for cleanup established by the [EPA]”.
However, the navy already turned over one parcel on the site, and residents living there say unremediated contamination is behind a cluster of cancer and other health problems.
Complicating the cleanup is rising sea and ground level waters, which threaten to pull the radioactive contamination into the adjacent bay.
The navy and US Department of Justice is now engaged in 12 lawsuits related to the site, and the DoJ, which is representing the navy, typically does not want inspector generals to do investigations because they could turn up information that complicates the government’s cases, Ruch said.
We wouldn’t want to complicate the government’s case.