New Legal Challenge Rekindles ‘Huge War’ Against Hunters Point’s Toxic Legacy

Marie Harrison has warned for years that the Hunters Point shipyard where she once worked on the southeastern edge of San Francisco was a slow-motion public health disaster.

Parts of the former Navy shipyard were contaminated during the Cold War by fallout from ships brought there after atomic bomb tests. It’s a toxic legacy that has left residents like Harrison, the mother of Bayview-Hunters Point’s environmental justice movement, to wonder if it could be related to nosebleeds, breathing problems, and neighbors’ tumors.

The Navy and public health officials have long denied any connection, and Harrison’s challenges came to an abrupt end two years ago, when she died of lung disease. Then, last year, his neighborhood became San Francisco’s COVID-19 epicenter.

Today, Harrison’s daughter Arieann sees the community at a new crossroads with construction underway of 12,000 new homes planned for the shipyard and nearby Candlestick Park. It stoked familiar worries about toxic lands, accelerating gentrification and glaring health inequalities – and in so doing, rekindled Harrison’s sense of activism.

“There is simultaneously a huge war with housing and environmental issues,” said Arieann Harrison. “They collide.”

Late Thursday night, lawyers for young Harrison and 9,000 other Bayview-Hunters Point residents who are part of a class action lawsuit asked a judge to stop construction of the old shipyard, unless the developer multi-billion dollar Lennar Corporation and its subsidiary FivePoint Holdings can prove that they control the release of toxic materials as required by state law.

Lennar declined to comment on the court challenge, which a federal judge will consider in a hearing scheduled for July 29. In a statement, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Public Health said the department “did not believe it was necessary to stop construction” for additional dust monitoring, since all work at the site must already be completed. comply with health codes requiring daily control and monitoring of dust.

What happens next in the decades-old development battle, which has already spawned a tangle of lawsuits, could help shape the Bay Area’s next chapter. Hunters Point is one of many long-contaminated former military or industrial sites in the area, set for major development amid a housing shortage that has pushed prices to record highs.

From Treasure Island to Mare de Vallejo Island to an Ancient chemical and pharmaceutical site in Richmond, developers say large plots with a long history of pollution are now among the Bay Area’s biggest and best chances of new construction.

But residents organizing court challenges in predominantly non-white working-class communities like Bayview-Hunters Point argue that promises of new jobs and affordable housing should not overshadow health concerns. Environmentalists add that projections of rising sea levels make the bay-side construction boom even more risky.

“It’s like a record broken around the bay in similar types of communities,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental health and justice activist group Greenaction. “The lawsuits are going to fly and there are going to be protests. The fight is on.

A story of mistrust

Arieann Harrison works at a social service agency in the flat part of Bayview, across from a gourmet sausage packing plant. As guests grapple with homelessness and instability, banners outside the new condos just across the hill from the old Hunters Point shipyard advertise a “balanced lifestyle.” ”And“ luxury retreats ”.

Home prices have skyrocketed in recent decades, hitting a median of $ 695,000 in Hunters Point and $ 960,000 in Bayview, according to the National Realtors Association, even after some banks suspended mortgage lending at the yard naval. In 2010, when the real estate crisis was feed the seizures on black homeowners, the median was $ 110,000 at Hunters Point and $ 360,000 at Bayview, according to an analysis by Jackson Fuller Realtors.

Harrison has seen the pressure build for much longer. She was born during the civil rights movement in 1967, just after a white San Francisco policeman shot dead a black teenager and set off an uprising at Bayview-Hunters Point. The shipyard closed in 1974 and the following decades sparked unrest linked to unemployment, displacement, drugs and violence. More recently, Harrison, who is known in the town as ‘the queen of resources’, has struggled to gain city support for a local women’s center and suffered serious health diagnoses for her uncle, her sister. , his mother and his father.

“That feeling of, like, nobody cares – I’ve seen it time and time again,” Harrison said. “I think what is happening in the community deserves international attention.”

Residents allege in the new legal file that they were not notified of the restart of construction, and they fear the dust raised by the construction could be harmful to schools and neighboring homes. As a result, they’re demanding that developers stop work for four to six months to allow for more in-depth testing by outside scientists and make a plan to monitor future work.

The injunction request is part of a U.S. district court case that dates back to 2018, when attorney Charles Bonner first filed a claim for damages of up to $ 27 billion, or approximately $ 675,000 for each of the approximately 40,000 residents of Bayview-Hunters Point. Bonner said settlement negotiations are underway with the developers, although he is also preparing to go to trial if necessary.

“Historically, for the past 75 years, this community has been totally devastated and totally ignored,” Bonner said. “Now is the time for this to end.”

The Navy and other agencies, meanwhile, have already spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to remove contamination from the shipyard. In 2004, regulators said the hilltop portion of the shipyard was clean, but campaigners say the more recent discovery of radioactive objects near the site undermines those reports.

The US EPA, California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and San Francisco Department of Public Health have said the hilltop area is safe for residents. More than 500 homes have already been built, of which around 20% are reserved for modest buyers as part of a large-scale community benefit agreement that has divided residents as house prices rise and good local jobs remain scarce.

Much of the old shipyard remains classified as a Federal Superfund site, and it needs to be tested and cleaned up before people can live there. Construction has restarted during the pandemic, and FivePoint said it expects the Navy to transfer other areas of cleared land to the city for future development between 2023 and 2028.

The lawsuits are obstructing the way forward. Lennar and FivePoint recently finalized a $ 6.3 million settlement with first-time buyers of new homes at the shipyard, who say the clean-up scandal has hurt their property values. FivePoint also sued the Navy for “careless supervision“cleaning.

Developers and local residents are among those suing Navy cleaning contractor Tetra Tech EC. Federal prosecutors alleged the company cut corners and tampered with radiation tests, and the Navy decided its data was suspicious and areas of the shipyard needed to be retested. Tetra Tech EC has denied any wrongdoing, although two former supervisors were sentenced in 2018 to eight months in prison for falsifying records.

‘You’ll never know’

Long before Keyvn Lutton fell ill, she and her artist partner moved to Bayview when they “struggled” to find a studio in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. They were the only white residents in one. black owners’ quarter, but she befriended other activists on a crusade against the development of shipyards – then in horror saw many fall with serious illnesses.

Lutton herself underwent several surgeries from 2007 to 2009 to remove brain tumors. In 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Another blow came when her toy poodle, Penelope, had her own tumor and died.

“All the things we were worried about, it turned out that what we were doing was right,” said Lutton, although to this day doctors alternately encourage and reject questions of whether it all could have been linked to the shipyard. “It’s like you’ll never know,” she said.

A persistent doctor is pushing the city and environmental regulators to do more to investigate and potentially compensate people with health problems. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a longtime activist and physician who previously worked with veterans exposed to Agent Orange and atomic fallout, leads a unique biomonitoring project who has so far tested 55 residents of Bayview-Hunters Point and found recurring high levels of toxins and carcinogens like Cadmium and Thallium.

Sumchai said many of her earlier warnings had been dismissed as “Chicken Little says the sky is falling,” but she hopes renewed attention to the links between race, environment and health might push the officials to revisit the shipyard. If health concerns prove to be widespread, she says she will continue to push for a health registry like the ones created in Flint, Mich., After the water crisis, and at the World Trade Center.

“The pandemic has drastically changed things,” Sumchai said. “We need to look at the redevelopment plan, and the reality is that there are some uses at the shipyard that we may have to abandon.”

For residents like Harrison who have long questioned cleanup, the question now is whether enough environmental damage control can be done to address health concerns while creating jobs that many in the community want. It still hurts to know that no matter what, most new homes will be far from accessible.

“I know there is a way to make the haves and have-nots work together, and it’s about being fair,” Harrison said. “It is not fair.”

Lauren Hepler is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @LAHepler

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