MEMORIAL DAY 2023 IN BAYVIEW HUNTERS POINT — by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD
“Speak softly…and carry a big stick!” is the African motto that embodied the diplomacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose Great White Fleet traversed San Francisco Bay on May 6, 1908 en route to “The World’s Greatest Shipping Yard” at Hunters Point.
Newspapers called it “the grandest spectacle of the age” as Roosevelt’s Atlantic Fleet of 16 gold gilded battleships steamed through the Golden Gate en route to the Hunters Point Dry Docks.
Following two months of respite, recovery, refueling and repair, the Great White Fleet departed the Hunters Point Shipyard on a fourteen month tour de force around the world.
A historic archive of photos, cartoons and news reports chronicle the magnificence of a spectacle witnessed by over a million people who gathered to view the flotilla enter San Francisco Bay.
In memorializing Asian Pacific Heritage month, let us remember Roosevelt’s use of “big stick diplomacy” to denounce efforts by the San Francisco Board of Education to segregate Asian students and the Mayors racist attempts to block the influx of Japanese immigrants.
The coastal wetlands and ancient hills of the promontory extending eastward into a once pristine San Francisco bay were cultivated by the Ramaytush Ohlone for 4000 years before the arrival and colonization by Spanish explorers in the 1700’s.
Surrounded on three sides by the bay, the Ohlone people navigated the promontory by canoe. In 1816, Louis Choris created an artistic depiction of the Ohlone in a canoe constructed of tule reeds harvested from the coastal marshes of San Francisco Bay.
The first Pacific Coast dry dock was constructed in 1867 when New York real estate investors and brothers — Phillip Schuyler Hunter, Robert Eugene Hunter and John Hunter — gained the deed of title to a portion of a four thousand acre land grant awarded to Jose’ Cornelio Bernal during the California Gold Rush in 1849.
Called “Kali Forno” by indigenous Americans and “Califas” by the Spanish, California joined the Union as a free state in 1850 with a constitution that expressly prohibited slavery.
On July 28, 1849, the Hunter brothers arrived in South San Francisco on the Clipper ship Memnon. The family built a mansion and dairy farm on Griffith and Oakdale Avenue in modern day Hunters Point…at the site of Hunters View Public Housing!
By 1870 the Pacific coast dry docks at Hunters Point were hailed “The World’s Greatest Shipping Yard.”
The Arsenal of America
In 1939 the United States Navy took over Hunters Point using eminent domain to quickly build out capacity at the Naval Shipyard. The Health Department burned down a village of Chinese fishermen dependent on the lucrative shrimping industry that operated along the Hunters Point dry docks. [The Chinese Shrimp Fishery — https://youtu.be/qJmK-DaHVuk]
“December 1941: A sudden attack on a distant US Naval Base transformed America overnight into the ‘Home Front.’ Everything changed, especially the swelling industrial workforce. It included millions…in particular African American women embodied by Rosie the Riveter.”
An estimated six million women entered the US workforce during the war. The government initially recruited single white women but minority women — who had always worked — became half of the defense workforce. By 1944, women comprised half of the workforce in roles that included clerical and administration, bus drivers and lab technicians.
The West Coast became the epicenter of wartime shipbuiling. The San Francisco Bay Area alone launched 45% of cargo. The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard operated as a repair facility from 1945 until 1974.
The United States Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories operated in a campus along the Shipyards southern shoreline from 1948 to 1969. NRDL experimented with 108 radioisotopes and listed 33 as radionuclides of concern in the Historical Radiological Assessment.
In 1974 the Navy ceased shipyard operations and from May 1976 to June 1986 the Navy leased the base to Triple A Machine Shop, Inc. Dry docks 2 through 7 operated at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard until it’s disestablishment in 1989 and closure under the Base Realignment & Closure Act in 1991.
“While moored at San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, Independence was the primary focus of the Navy’s studies on decontamination until age and the possibility of its sinking led the Navy to tow the blast damaged carrier to sea for scuttling on January 26, 1951.” — Todd Lappin
The bomb scarred radioactive hulk of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Independence docked along the historic Gun Mole Pier beneath the towering Gantry Crane at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. It served as a floating radiation laboratory from 1948 to 1951.
Exposed to the detonation of two 21 kiloton Fat Man plutonium bombs, the Independence was part of a fleet of target ships hauled back to Hunters Point following Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons testing conducted in the South Pacific in July 1946.
According to the shipyard’s Historical Radiological Assessment, the Navy burned over 600,000 gallons of nuclear fuel oil in power plants on the base over a neighborhood with an estimated 30,000 people. That fuel contained plutonium.
KT is a veterinary technician disabled by work injuries. Five expert doctors have verified her to have signs, symptoms, risk factors, toxicology screens, lab findings and health effects caused by exposure to radioactive heavy metals at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
Kelly Tankersley lives within feet of the unreinforced fence line of a federal Superfund site at…
KT lives about 100 feet away from the shipyards most heavily contaminated regions — the Parcel E-2 Industrial Landfill and the radiation contaminated western panhandle region.
She returned from Mexico in May on a trip she financed to undergo chelation therapy hoping it would leach her body of radioactive chemicals she is being exposed to that are documented to be present in shipyard landfills, soils, sediments, groundwater, air and radiation laboratories.
KT has lived for over a decade half a block west of Fitch street — the western boundary between the densely populated south central Hunters Point neighborhood and the Parcel E-2 industrial landfill and radiation contaminated panhandle region.
A former vet technician who has witnessed the cancer deaths of many companion animals, KT now reports seeing dead raccoons.
An unfortified chain metal fence separates south central Hunters Point from deep soil excavations and heavy equipment operations actively conducted by Navy contractors along the shipyards western fence line.
The shipyard’s Panhandle Region may pose a greater risk of radiation exposure to nearby “sensitive receptors” than the Parcel E-2 landfill due to its close proximity to homes, schools, churches, playgrounds, businesses and non profit community based organizations located within the half mile perimeter at 3rd street coursing south along Quesada, Revere, Shafter, Thomas, Underwood, Van Dyke and Williams…all the way south to the north shore of Yosemite Slough. The most heavily contaminated region of the panhandle is four blocks away from the neighborhood health center and Bayview playground.
A frequently cited graphic map created by NBC highlights radiologically impacted regions of the shipyard in pink. Regions designated “hot pink” are heavily contaminated and include the western panhandle…where thousands of people live. The Navy dumped radioactive metal slag in the metal reef area of the panhandle knowing people “lived, worked, played and prayed” nearby!
According to the EPA EJScreen, approximately 23,000 people live within the one mile perimeter of an indicator pin located at the Crisp Road corridor of entry to the base:
In 2016 the EPA designated Yosemite Slough a Federal Superfund site. It is a horizontal channel that extends west into south central Hunters Point a quarter of a mile away from neighborhood transit centers, Southeast Health Center, MLK swimming pool, Bayview KC Jones playground and a “nest” of private homes, public housing, restaurants and food service industries, non profits, community based organizations and businesses operating along the 3rd street corridor.
“The Navy disputes that the site harms the health of area residents. Doctors who launched an effort to test families for exposure disagree.”
Following the advice of Hunters Point Biomonitoring program doctors, KT went to the San Francisco General Hospital in 2022 seeking supportive care and expert toxicology consultation. She brought with her the urinary screening that detected 20 dangerous chemicals in toxic concentrations and reports being told at the reception desk, “We can’t do anything about this!”
KT was next referred to an expert in environmental medicine and underwent blood lead testing that came back elevated. She reports being told it could not be treated because…”she would continue to be exposed to lead where she lives.”
In July of 2022 she underwent a 24 hour urinary screening capable of detecting radioisotopes of uranium, plutonium and potassium. The test was conducted by an environmental toxicologist and founder of a biomonitoring laboratory.
Radioactive potassium K-40 was detected using gamma spectroscopy in concentrations of 3.92 pCi/g — over eight times the allowable limit of 0.47 pCi/g!
Isotopic plutonium by alpha spectroscopy detected Pu-238 and Pu-244 in concentrations exceeding allowable limits.
Uranium 233/234, 235/236, 238 and total uranium were all detected in concentrations exceeding upper limits, indeed, total uranium was detected in concentrations of 0.058 pCi/g — four times higher than the 0.014 pCi/g allowable limit.
KT underwent repeat urinary biomonitoring screening in May of 2023 following her trip to Mexico for chelation therapy. It documents overall declines in concentrations of lead, barium, cadmium, cesium, copper and manganese but persistently high levels of rubidium, tungsten, uranium and molybdenum when compared to an interval screening obtained in September of 2022.
RESPECTING COMMUNITY NARRATIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE
“Communities that bear the brunt of environmental pollution and lack basic amenities have a story to tell. One such community is the Bayview — Hunters Point community in San Francisco, California. There, the US Navy extensively contaminated a now-shuttered shipyard with nuclear waste.” Professor Helen Kang — Director Golden Gate University Environmental Law and Justice Clinic
Helen Kang is a Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University. Founded in 1994 to provide legal support to communities burdened by pollution, Kang writes about the dignity and right to be heard and believed and government’s duty to be accountable.
In a scholarly review, Kang tells the story of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard as an “egregious example of injustice.” “That would be so even if based solely on the radioactive characteristics of the contamination, which raises special alarm bells because of the slow decay and harms associated with exposure to radioactivity.
But the historical context of the neighborhood also makes this predicament unjust: the composition of the shipyard neighborhood was predominantly black because of government forced segregation…even beyond this invidious distinction, the shipyard story is emblematic of a larger problem. These environmental injustice stories illustrate a confluence of systemic failures, one of which is the failure of various actors in the legal and administrative system to respect community voices.”
In 2020 Kang was honored recipient of the Svetlana Kravchenko Environmental Award. In an article published in Bloomberg Law, Kang writes about How 93 US Attorney’s Offices Can Enforce Environmental Justice in response to the May 5, 2022 release of the comprehensive environmental justice enforcement strategy issued by the US Department of Justice that was created by community input.
Community Window on Environmental Exposures is supported by CalEPA EJ Small Grant #G21-EJ-030 and the 2022 Environmental Justice Data Fund/Windward Fund Award in collaborative partnership with the SF Bayview Newspaper, the Marie Harrison Community Foundation and James Dahlgren Medical.