Militant Journalism

San Francisco’s Bayview community fights racist pollution

On Feb. 12 in San Francisco, the Bayview-Hunters Point community rallied and marched along Third St., demanding the complete cleanup of radioactive and toxic contamination at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and adjacent areas. The shipyard is classified as a superfund site, deemed a hazardous contamination location by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Activists came together from Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Bayview Hunters Point Mothers and Fathers Committee, Marie Harrison Community Foundation, Youth vs. Apocalypse and other allies, including the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Six blocks along the route of the march there are cancer clusters, centered around the entrance of HPNS. Residents in this predominantly Black neighborhood have serious health complications: asthma, nosebleeds, leukemia, increased cancer rates, low-birth rates, infant mortality, maternal mortality, etc. The people of Bayview-Hunters Point can’t breathe.

“There are three women here with cancer who are living within four blocks of each other. One of them just died in December 2021; another is Mary Ratcliff. These are real people,” said Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai to the crowd. Dr. Sumchai has taken on the task of running toxicologies on BVHP residents, which City Hall or any regulatory agency refuses to do. Her father was a longshoreman at the shipyard who died of pulmonary asbestosis. 

Liberation photo

Dr. James Dahlgren, an environmental toxicologist who most notably testified in Hinkley v. PG&E — the Erin Brokovich case — was present and spoke: “In 1995, the Department of Health documented an increase in breast cancer in this zip code. It was twice the national rate. What did they do about it? They stopped measuring.”

City Hall politicians, the U.S. Navy, and private developers have acted concertedly to cover up this environmental injustice, leaving radioactive waste buried and veneering over it with private development. 

Bayview-Hunters Point has multiple superfund sites and has been a historic dumping ground. With just 5% of the city’s population, the neighborhood holds the majority of industrial and toxic sites. The Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant there handles 80% of the city’s sewage in addition to sewage from other cities. Activists launched their own air monitoring network last year, forced by the air pollution and City Hall’s inaction.

Acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1940, its then-secret Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the HPNS served as the largest facility for applied nuclear research of the time. NRDL studied the effects of radiation and nuclear weapons, bringing in 14 ships for experimental decontamination. The Navy dumped tens of thousands of barrels of the nuclear waste at Farallon Islands just 30 miles off the coast — the largest nuclear waste dump site in the country. 

The San Francisco Bay Area was a strategic location for the U.S. military throughout and after WWII, with shipyards and bases sprouting up a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Components of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb were loaded at Hunters Point on July 15, 1945, to be used weeks later on Hiroshima, killing 146,000 people, including 30,000 unacknowledged Koreans.

Though the Navy closed HPNS in 1994, the property remains in their hands. Only Parcel A was handed off to City Hall for redevelopment in 2004. “Information about the extent of the shipyard’s radiation and contamination wasn’t even public at the time Parcel A was being transferred, and now you have people living on Parcel A,” said Dr. Sumchai. 

From 2006 to 2012, Tetra Tech, the Navy’s contractor investigating the contamination, ordered its workers to falsify their soil samples, destroying samples with high radioactive readings.

In October of 2021, the homebuyers at Parcel A won a settlement in their case against luxury developers Lennar and Five Point Holdings. The BVHP community, however, has yet to be recompensed.

Nube Brown, editor-in-chief of the Bayview National Black Newspaper, addressed the crowd: “In October 2021, the International Tribunal charged the U.S. of environmental racism and how it impacted Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. The jurists found the United States guilty of all five charges of genocide. Every day that this toxic waste site is not cleaned up, that is murder. They are murdering our children. They are murdering our families. They are destroying our communities. And it is called genocide — nothing short of that. The blood is on the hands of every supervisor and politician in California.”

At nearby superfund site India Basin, Build Inc. is now planning for development with Mayor London Breed praising the project and the Board of Supervisors having approved the megadevelopment in 2018. 

During the rally, a protester cried out, “Your houses are not going to protect you from what’s underneath you and going in your air. We have a life sentence that takes 15 years off of our life, and we deserve better. We built this city. We want solidarity! We want restitution! We want reconciliation! We want our freedom!

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