In 1946, the Navy bombed its own ships in the Pacific. Operation Crossroads, which resulted in the exile of Marshallese natives and rendered Bikini Atoll uninhabitable to this day, saw the detonations of two plutonium nuclear weapons of the kind dropped on Nagasaki on a fleet of 96 ships. Live pigs on board, stand-ins for military personnel, keeled over and died. The ships were sandblasted, but the contamination only spread. The least contaminated ships were scrapped and most were so radioactive that they were ultimately filled with barrels of radioactive substance and intentionally sunk. But before these ships’ destruction, they were towed to a historically Black neighborhood in San Francisco called Bayview-Hunters Point.
The city does not emphasize its nuclear history to newcomers. After all, the thought of the military dropping nukes on its own ships and dragging them to a major metropolitan area for what we now know to have been a futile decontamination procedure would not sit well with anxious homebuyers or align with San Francisco’s progressive veneer. California has already pledged to shut down its last nuclear energy power plant by 2024, so many of the city’s residents would like to believe that Hunters Point is a relic of environmental racism and nuclear ignorance. However, the city’s ongoing compliance with housing magnates and Naval contractors in transferring contaminated land for development delivers a particularly painful sting in a county strapped for housing, even if its upper classes are already numb to gentrification. One of its biggest scandals has exposed what might be referred to as a new “nuclear triad” — the Navy, cleanup firm Tetra Tech, and housing development firm Lennar Corporation — that have worked to undermine neighborhood leadership and compound rather than rectify the city’s nuclear legacy.
THE NAVY AND THE CLEANUP FIRM
San Francisco’s nuclear story began when the Navy bought out a private shipyard in San Francisco just before the Pearl Harbor attacks. There, they established the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, one of the first labs commissioned to study radiation, spread radioactivity throughout Hunters Point for years. According to documents declassified in 2001, the lab’s experiments included feeding radioactive liquids to humans and hanging a nuclear isotope that emits X-ray-like radiation in the San Francisco Bay. Outside the lab, decontamination procedures like open-air sandblasting further spread radiation from bombed ships to Hunters Point. An aircraft carrier was moored at the shipyard for years before it was loaded with 48,000 barrels of radioactive waste and sunk thirty miles off the coast. After reviewing “spotty” historical records, the Navy decided against testing 90% of the 883 designated parcels of land at the former shipyard. Later findings revealed that the Navy found “ubiquitous” radiation in certain places when it had expected contamination to be restricted to documented spill locations, so it’s difficult to be certain of the safety of the untested sites.
The Navy has yet to acknowledge the threat of high-level radiation stemming from the many drums of waste produced over the course of the shipyard’s operations, but it has admitted to detecting what it classifies as “low-level” radiation” emitted from radionuclides with short half-lives. However, even low-level radiation can be volatile since there is no safe level of radioactivity. A 2019 city-convened University of California panel supported the Navy’s claim that sampling procedures were sound, but conceded that the Navy misled locals by distributing flyers and other materials saying the site posed no health risks. Even the UC panel’s main assertion defending the integrity of the Navy’s sampling procedures around housing has been shaken by its exclusion of whistleblower testimony and its failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest in the UCSF property next to the shipyard that saw all fourteen employees test positive for toxic heavy metals. Three of the four panel members (the fourth, environmental scientist Kirk Smith, passed a few months after the report’s publication from an unrelated cause) have since expressed regrets about the report, with UC Berkeley Professor Thomas McKone saying of the shipyard’s legacy of misinformation: “We didn’t realize what we were stepping into.” Panel member Professor John Balmes has apologized for his “faulty memory” with regard to disclosure of his past work advising shipyard developers and contended, “We should never have embarked on what we were trying to do, because it was a no-win situation.”
The Navy’s minimization of lethal nuclear operations at Bayview-Hunters Point fit into a larger military pattern of avoiding responsibility for early radiological ignorance, ongoing environmental racism, and the self-sabotaging volatility of the nuclear system in the name of security.
The report’s lack of trust within the Bayview-Hunters Point community and the panel’s retroactive acknowledgement of the community’s contentious relationship with cleanup authorities underscore the need for a community-led initiative with regard to the city’s nuclear legacy and broader civil-military discussions nationwide. The Navy’s minimization of lethal nuclear operations at Bayview-Hunters Point fit into a larger military pattern of avoiding responsibility for early radiological ignorance, ongoing environmental racism, and the self-sabotaging volatility of the nuclear system in the name of security.
MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX MEETS HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
Upholding this status quo are two actors — engineering firm Tetra Tech EC and housing developer Lennar Corp. — that have prevented the Hunters Point cleanup from starting a larger conversation about the injustice of the nuclear system. Tetra Tech was contracted to test just 10% of the Hunters Point sites against the political backdrop of the largest redevelopment project since the 1906 earthquake leveled the city. Tetra Tech was to test and clean parcels of land and transfer them to the city. Over 20 years, Tetra Tech managed to transfer just one parcel for the construction of 439 condos before soil samples used to prove radiation levels met cleanup objectives were found to be fabricated. Further investigation revealed that Tetra Tech allegedly fired whistleblowers and hired the son of an RASO site manager in order to convince her to overlook weakened radiation portal monitors. Lawsuits against Tetra Tech resulted in the imprisonment of two supposedly rogue employees, but when a federal judge presiding over the many cases against them grew suspicious, the firm demanded he recuse himself for bias. The government paid $250 million for a botched cleanup, waived Tetra Tech’s $7,000 fine, and rewarded the firm with more cleanup contracts. Aside from the blatant corruption, the Navy violated the Superfund law requiring the use of up-to-date cleaning standards like the EPA’s designated calculation tool and the Navy’s retesting plan centers on cost-cutting rather than human safety, a testament to the coziness of the military-industrial complex.
The nation’s second-largest home construction company, Lennar, was among the top ten spenders on lobbying local politicians in 2015, one year after it launched its third city redevelopment plan near Bayview-Hunters Point where Candlestick Park once stood. Lennar built its fortune converting former military bases into suburban dreamscapes, but in 2008 homeowners in an Orlando development uncovered a buried bombing range complete with live WWII-era rockets under yards and schools. While Lennar contends that they too were victimized by the military’s deceit, the company’s financial stakes in government projects with the Department of Defense, USAID, and EPA are well documented. They paid a whopping $1 apiece for the rights to develop Hunters Point and Mare Island, another Bay Area military base in the working class city of Vallejo. Seeing that they split their profits evenly with the city of Vallejo, Lennar shares its financial stakes in government projects with San Francisco. Dan Hirsch, former director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Environmental and Nuclear Policy and president of the nuclear industry watchdog Committee to Bridge the Gap, condemned the 2019 UC panel’s review of sampling procedures around Lennar’s Hunters Point development as inextricably linked to the City of San Francisco’s housing aspirations. In a local news interview, he said the panel “spent nearly a year and produced four pages that don’t have any data in them at all… It is as though the outcome was preordained. They knew what the mayor wanted and they provided… And that’s troubling because people’s health is at risk.” The only way to be certain of the land’s safety for residence, according to Hirsch, is deep soil testing. This would require authorities to notify the development’s majority- mid-income residents, scare off buyers and potentially stop the redevelopment and gentrification of Bayview-Hunters Point in its tracks, a blow to Lennar and the city itself. Nevertheless, taking new samples is a crucial step in listening to the Black working-class residents who have been bearing the brunt of the Navy’s negligence for decades, but in the most gentrified metropolitan area in the country, both Lennar and the city of San Francisco seem to be unwilling to take this risk for fear of disillusioning their new residents.
The tenth lawsuit following falling housing prices in the new housing complex stated that Tetra Tech, Lennar, and developer Five Point Holdings LLC, which soon after scrapped its business plans with Lennar, covered up knowledge of industrial and radioactive waste nearby when selling and marketing new homes. The intersection of city, corporate, and military interests has allowed for the manipulation of aspiring homeowners in an area where a household income of $117,400 is considered low-income. Nevertheless, a lawsuit from the new complex is not enough to reconcile the damage done in Bayview-Hunters Point.
BLACK LABOR AND RESISTANCE
Lennar, Tetra Tech, and the Navy owe even more to the Black community. Local activists have been blowing the whistle on the military-industrial complex in Bayview for decades, and their suspicions arose not from plummeting housing prices but from illness and the abrupt end of their livelihoods.
When the Navy bought the shipyard from private owners just before the Pearl Harbor attacks, a slew of Black workers migrated from the South to take up new shipbuilding jobs at the newly acquired Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Newcomers, molded by the ruthlessness of Southern Jim Crow and empowered by war-economy wages, lifted up the existing Black population by cultivating a sense of community as the neighborhood set upon a pathway to the middle class. But the Navy’s exit in 1974 ripped the community’s economic foundation out from underneath it, leaving the Black labor to which it owed its successes with little besides contaminated soil. Out of the ruins came activists and community leaders including the “Big Five of Bayview,” a coalition of Black women and outspoken mothers backing key neighborhood redevelopment projects in the 1960s and 70s. The group included Osceola Washington, who fundraised for youth alongside Black baseball legend Willie Mays; Elouise Westbrook, who advocated for safe, affordable housing following the displacement of low-income families after the redevelopment plans were revealed; Ruth Williams, who prevented the demolition of a historic opera house that now bares her name; and Julia Comer, who led the demolition and replacement of the substandard public housing established by the Navy. Other activists noted as part of the “Big Five” include Ardith Nichols, Rosalie Williams, and Bertha Freeman, who paved the way for successors like Espanola Jackson and Marie Harrison, the former taking the helm in demonstrations that led to the establishment of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the latter an environmental organizer and champion for Hunters Point during the cleanup scandal until her death from interstitial lung disease, a byproduct of the environmental racism against which she spent her life fighting.
As the city’s population grows, the Black population dwindles, and the nuclear system, with its history of exploiting Black labor dating to uranium mining in the Dutch Congo, adds to the immense stress of Black people living in one of the last neighborhoods to remain untouched by gentrification.
The untested sites at Hunters Point are a continuation of this bureaucratic violence. Although there currently aren’t plans to buy off longtime residents, it’s reasonable to anticipate a plan to “redevelop” the rest of the neighborhood. When this time comes, will residents finally receive consultation and soil tests, only to be displaced? Today, residents of Hunters Point live insecurely and without the peace of mind that comes from environmental health. In late 2018 the EPA criticized the Navy for a lack of transparency and for failing to specify how various radioactive elements would be identified in a retesting plan. This lack of transparency has fostered a sense of uncertainty that has persisted for far too long. It’s time to listen and make sure development and long-overdue testing does not lead to displacement. “We may not speak the King’s English,” Harrison said, “but we know what’s happening to us. We see it and live it everyday, so if you want to know about it, ask us, don’t ask somebody else because they don’t live here.” As the city’s population grows, the Black population dwindles, and the nuclear system, with its history of exploiting Black labor dating to uranium mining in the Dutch Congo, adds to the immense stress of Black people living in one of the last neighborhoods to remain untouched by gentrification.
If the City of San Francisco cannot make amends with the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point, its promises to advance racial equity will never be fully realized. If the military doesn’t own up to the negligence and injustices of the past, we cannot expect that the government will be responsible with the nuclear weapons development programs they want to reboot today. This neighborhood is sounding the alarm on the pervasiveness of nuclear injustice on city and national levels. It’s time for us to listen.
Sofia Guerra is a fellow at Beyond the Bomb from the Bay Area. She studies asymmetric operations, nuclear policy, and migration as a political science student at Amherst College.