New report finds SF’s biggest development project ignores huge climate change risk: rising contamination

Rising seas caused by climate change could ultimately expose thousands of people to hazardous chemicals at San Francisco’s biggest redevelopment project — and the city is unprepared for the risks, according to a new grand jury report.

San Francisco plans to build housing units, commercial spaces and parks in low-lying areas of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which hugs the bay in southeastern San Francisco. The project is the city’s biggest redevelopment effort since the 1906 earthquake.

Yet the San Francisco civil grand jury report warns that groundwater could carry dangerous buried substances to the surface as the water table rises at the site, which was contaminated decades ago with heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and radioactive substances. The result could be catastrophic “for health, for environmental safety, and for the resilience of future development,” the report notes.

“There’s so much at stake in the Hunters Point Shipyard,” jury foreperson Michael Hofman said in a statement. “But inside the City, only a tiny program in the Department of Public Health is engaged with the cleanup. The City isn’t prepared to respond when things go wrong. And the City isn’t devoting the right resources to anticipate problems like groundwater rise at the Shipyard, while there’s still time to do something.”

The health department did not respond to requests seeking comment on Wednesday, instead forwarding questions to the city administrator’s office. A spokesperson said in a statement that San Francisco “will be carefully considering the recommendations from the report” and has already supported a regional study on flood risks, which expects to release its findings later this year.

The Hunter's Point Shipyard housing construction along Kirkwood Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif.

The Hunter’s Point Shipyard housing construction along Kirkwood Avenue on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

“San Francisco is currently looking at the entire future hydrological cycle, Bay/sea level rise and coastal flooding, future extreme precipitation, and groundwater rise,” the spokesperson said. “This includes seeking funding for additional studies such as analysis of known contaminated sites and the potential for rising groundwater to mobilize contaminants.”

An official with the Navy, which is managing the cleanup of the 638-acre federal Superfund site, said the Navy “is aware of the report but has not had an opportunity to review it.” The US Environmental Protection Agency, one of multiple agencies overseeing those efforts, said it is “currently reviewing the entire report.”

The report follows a series of investigations by The Chronicle that exposed hazards and oversight failures at the shipyard that have risked the health of San Franciscans for years. The newspaper found that city oversight of the project has been particularly weak, revealing that the health department has often dismissed health concerns while simultaneously helping real estate developers to sell shipyard homes. Other Bay Area outlets have reported on costly mistakes and fraud in cleanup procedures.

Every year, the San Francisco Superior Court appoints 19 residents to the county’s civil grand jury, which acts as a watchdog of government agencies. He spent the past year interviewing dozens of people about the shipyard cleanup, including officials involved in the process and coastal adaptation experts.

For decades now, the Navy and EPA have been trying to clean up the shipyard, which sits almost flush with the bay, before transferring the land to the city for development.

But the cleanup strategy was designed when scientists understood far less about climate change and its impacts. And the agencies running and overseeing the cleanup have not evolved with the science, the grand jury found.

The cleanup is premised on the Navy’s claim that it is safe to leave contaminants buried in the soil throughout the site. The Navy often places a layer of dirt or other barriers atop the pollution and relies on what it calls “institutional controls” — warnings and monitoring programs — to protect people.

But climate change could make those contaminants mobile. According to recent scientific research, as seas rise, ocean water will also push up nearby groundwater.

The Hunter's Point Shipyard housing on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif.

The Hunter’s Point Shipyard housing on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Existing housing at the shipyard sits on a hill and is not likely to be impacted. But future development, including parts of the shipyard where the city plans to build homes and shared parkland, will happen in lower areas. The report points out that high tides or floods there may carry dangerous chemicals, toxic metals or trace amounts of radioactive materials “right up to the surface, onto the sidewalks where children play.”

The jury found that the current site plans do not take these risks into account: The Navy has not adapted its cleanup strategy to account for rising groundwater and the hazardous substances it could contain; the EPA has not performed studies; and the city has not asked federal agencies to address the threat.

The grand jury recommended that San Francisco development and health officials hire expert scientists to make a comprehensive map of groundwater at the shipyard and forecast how groundwater would likely rise as the sea level does. Depending on the predictions, the report suggests, the city might want to revise its development plans.

The grand jury also recommended that the Board of Supervisors create a permanent Hunters Point Shipyard Cleanup Oversight Committee to monitor the cleanup and hold the Navy, the EPA and state regulators accountable.

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