A Lawsuit, 1,000 E-mails and San Francisco’s Superfund Site

Rose Arrieta March 24, 2011

Workers grade a parcel at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, where Lennar plans to build mega condo and stadium complex.

Super­fund sites are the worse haz­ardous waste sites in the Unit­ed States. What we’re try­ing to avoid here is anoth­er Love Canal, anoth­er Kat­ri­na, anoth­er BP. —Dr. Wilma Sub­ra, MacArthur Genius award win­ner and nation­al­ly acclaimed scientist.

SAN FRAN­CIS­CO — A judge here is set to hear argu­ments today (Thurs­day) that the city of San Fran­cis­co and the Lennar Cor­po­ra­tion failed to dis­close the poten­tial health impacts of devel­op­ment in Hunters Point Naval Ship­yard, one of the most pol­lut­ed super­fund sites in the nation.

Peo­ple Orga­nized to Win Work­er Rights (POW­ER) and Green­ac­tion filed suit against Lennar last fall. The case, rep­re­sent­ed by Earth­jus­tice, a non­prof­it pub­lic inter­est law firm, chal­lenges the corporation’s Envi­ron­men­tal Impact Report (EIR) for its mas­sive con­do com­plex and sta­di­um devel­op­ment locat­ed on the city’s only fed­er­al super­fund site. 

The plain­tiffs are chal­leng­ing whether the EIR for the planned devel­op­ment is ade­quate, accu­rate or com­plete in ana­lyz­ing the health impacts (see video below) from tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion at the site. The suit calls for Lennar and the City of San Fran­cis­co to com­ply with the Cal­i­for­nia Envi­ron­men­tal Qual­i­ty Con­trol Act (CEQA).

I live just a skip and a half from this Super­fund site. All we have asked for is clean air, to pro­tect us in our neigh­bor­hoods. And [for­mer may­or Gavin New­som], the health depart­ment, they just turned their heads like we do not even exist,” Bayview res­i­dent Vivian Don­ahue said at a meet­ing.

It is our hope that we are able to stop that process because of the way in which (the EIR) was improp­er­ly pushed through. There were no safe­guards put in place,” said Marie Har­ri­son, a long­time Bayview res­i­dent with envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice group Greenaction.

Nation­al­ly acclaimed sci­en­tist and MacArthur Genius award win­ner Wilma Sub­ra of the Tech­ni­cal Assis­tance Ser­vices for Com­mu­ni­ties, has been work­ing with SLAM for some time now. Sub­ra con­sults with com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try deal­ing with pol­lu­tion issues. She has been inves­ti­gat­ing the poten­tial human health and envi­ron­men­tal impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf.

In 2010, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency assigned Sub­ra to eval­u­ate the draft Bayview EIR. She con­clud­ed that there was a lack of ade­quate over­sight and enforce­ment that could result in expo­sure of humans and the envi­ron­ment to haz­ardous mate­ri­als on the sites and poten­tial­ly flawed reme­dies being implemented.”

She raised seri­ous con­cerns before it was approved, includ­ing that pro­tec­tions cit­ed in the SF Rede­vel­op­ment Agency/​Lennar EIR were not enough to pro­tect res­i­dents, stu­dents and work­ers from the dan­gers of tox­ic materials.

For years many, Bayview res­i­dents, their allies, and envi­ron­men­tal activists have sound­ed the alarm that Lennar was fail­ing to dis­close the health impacts of tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion on the Ship­yard to res­i­dents and to work­ers. They’ve fought to stop expo­sure to dust con­tain­ing asbestos that set­tled over the area when work­ers start­ed exca­vat­ing and grad­ing one of the parcels in 2006 and 2007 with­out prop­er air mon­i­tor­ing systems.

When Lennar start­ed grad­ing a hill­side, heavy equip­ment break­ing the ser­pen­tine rock in the hill released plumes of nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring asbestos. Near­by res­i­dents com­plained of bloody noses, headaches, breath­ing prob­lems and increased inci­dents of asth­ma attacks, as detailed in this video:

Even­tu­al­ly, enforce­ment actions were levied against Lennar by the Bay Area Qual­i­ty Man­age­ment Dis­trict (BAQMD) and the SF Dept. of Pub­lic Health, for hun­dreds of vio­la­tions. Lennar was fined $515,000 by the BAQMD. It was the high­est civ­il penal­ty ever assessed for dust mit­i­ga­tion in the state of Cal­i­for­nia.

Emails obtained through FOIA

Mean­while, on March 21 the Stop Lennar Action Move­ment (SLAM) Coali­tion of Bayview Hunters Point Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­ni­za­tions, and New Orleans-based Advo­cates for Envi­ron­men­tal Human Rights released infor­ma­tion about one thou­sands of e‑mails from 2006 to 2009 between EPA Region 9, the SF Health Dept and the Lennar Cor­po­ra­tion (as well as its con­sul­tants), obtained through a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request.

They say the e‑mails show col­lu­sion and con­spir­a­cy to manip­u­late facts regard­ing asbestos expo­sure from con­struc­tion work at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard.They are call­ing for a full inves­ti­ga­tion into pub­lic corruption.

The e‑mails, which can be seen here, appear to show that some San Fran­cis­co pub­lic health offi­cials and some mem­bers of EPA9 devel­oped a cozy rela­tion­ship with the Lennar Corp.

For instance, in one e‑mail an offi­cial at EPA Region 9 wrote to an envi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant for the Lennar Cor­po­ra­tion, regard­ing the Hunter’s Point asbestos re-analy­sis conclusions:

I’m not sure how to cre­ate a basis for the con­clu­sions how­ev­er, for the gen­er­al pub­lic. The infor­ma­tion in the first set of points is appro­pri­ate for government/​industry types, but I’m search­ing for a way to jus­ti­fy that the devel­op­ment is accept­able with­out get­ting into details of risk assess­ment…. I’ll try and clar­i­fy a few things so we’re on the same page as we mas­sage the message.

As not­ed by POW­ER on its web­site: *Fol­low­ing this e‑mail, Mark Rip­per­da, EPA Region 9 Reme­di­al Project Man­ag­er, repeat­ed­ly stat­ed in pub­lic forums and meet­ings with local offi­cials that EPA sees no rea­son to stop the Lennar Corp.’s rede­vel­op­ment project at the Hunters Point Naval Ship­yard. Ripperda’s state­ment served as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the City of San Fran­cis­co Plan­ning Depart­ment to draft an EIR in sup­port of the rede­vel­op­ment plan by the Lennar Corp. and a major­i­ty of the Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors to approve the EIR.

And in anoth­er e‑mail dat­ed Oct. 13, 2006, from an SF Pub­lic Health Dept. offi­cial to two Lennar Corp. employees:

I’m sure you will also want to change my word­ing on how I por­tray the prob­lems, lack of mon­i­tors, etc. Go ahead and change any way you want. I may change some of it back but I’m will­ing to read your ver­sions. As not­ed, don’t both­er adding the work­er mon­i­tor­ing infor­ma­tion. I don’t want to use it… if specif­i­cal­ly asked in a pub­lic meet­ing, I will be will­ing to ver­bal­ly state the facts relat­ed to work­er monitoring. …

The Health Dept. says it is look­ing into the issue. Region­al Admin­is­tra­tor for the EPA Jared Blu­men­feld stat­ed, I take these alle­ga­tions very seri­ous­ly. Today, I ini­ti­at­ed a com­pre­hen­sive review of the entire mat­ter.” And Lennar Urban Vice Pres­i­dent Kofi Bon­ner stat­ed: Noth­ing in these emails sug­gests any data was hid­den, altered or cov­ered up.”

Calls for investigation

SLAM and AEHR, a coali­tion of res­i­dents, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists and work­er rights orga­ni­za­tion are call­ing on the FBI and the Mayor’s Office, the Board of Super­vi­sors and the Cal­i­for­nia State Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kamala Har­ris launch a full inves­ti­ga­tion into alleged pub­lic cor­rup­tion involved in the Lennar Cor­po­ra­tion rede­vel­op­ment of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Said Bayview res­i­dent Esse­lene Stan­cil in a state­ment released by POWER,

We want to know what is in the ground that the chil­dren of Bayview will be play­ing in? What will be in the air that our chil­dren will be breath­ing? What will work­ers be sub­ject­ed to? These are basic ques­tions that Lennar and the City sim­ply have not been will­ing to answer.

Tox­ic history

The area was a work­ing naval oper­a­tion from 1941 to 1974. It was the site of Naval Radi­o­log­i­cal Defense Lab­o­ra­to­ry, involved in the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion of ships exposed to atom­ic weapons test­ing. Exper­i­ments were con­duct­ed on radi­o­log­i­cal decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion and the effects of radi­a­tion on liv­ing organ­isims and mate­ri­als. In 1989 the Ship­yard was des­ig­nat­ed as San Francisco’s only Super­fund site.

Stat­ed Dr. Ahis­ma Porter Sum­chai at a hear­ing over the EIR before the Board of Super­vi­sors in 2009, We have peo­ple in the room who rep­re­sent the health depart­ment who make state­ments about health effects at a fed­er­al super­fund site that are con­trary to what the research shows us. “

Mean­while, the law­suit says that the con­t­a­m­i­nants on the Ship­yard put con­struc­tion work­ers involved in reme­di­a­tion or rede­vel­op­ment at risk of expo­sure as well as near­by res­i­dents, and chil­dren, staff and vis­i­tors in near­by schools.

Although cleanup by the Navy has been ongo­ing, the area is heav­i­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with fuels, pes­ti­cides, heavy met­als, PCBs, volatile organ­ic com­pounds, radioac­tive mate­ri­als and nat­u­ral­ly-occur­ring asbestos. 

Last year Dr. Wilma Sub­ra tes­ti­fied before the SF Board of Super­vi­sors about the inad­e­qua­cy of the report in address­ing the poten­tial health impacts of the Lennar devel­op­ment at the Super­fund site. She expressed con­cern over res­i­dents and con­struc­tion work­ers expo­sure to toxins.

Sub­ra told In These Times when she was in San Fran­cis­co in December:

I’ve done a lot of com­plex sites… but not where they want­ed to build res­i­den­tial on top of the waste, and not where there was resid­ual waste being left behind that they want­ed to devel­op for res­i­den­tial. I’ve had sites where it was cleaned up to indus­tri­al stan­dards and then devel­op­ers came in and actu­al­ly cleaned it up again to res­i­den­tial stan­dards and then devel­oped over it. But not where there was waste left on a site, like this one.

Rose Arri­eta was born and raised in Los Ange­les. She has worked in print, broad­cast and radio, both main­stream and com­mu­ni­ty ori­ent­ed — includ­ing being a for­mer edi­tor of the Bay Area’s inde­pen­dent com­mu­ni­ty bilin­gual biweek­ly El Tecolote. She cur­rent­ly lives in San Fran­cis­co, where she is a free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for a vari­ety of out­lets on social jus­tice issues.
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