What Does Pearl Harbor and Environmental Injustice in San Francisco Have in Common?

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Photo credit: Christopher Ulrich/Flickr

By Sharon Franklin.

Pearl Harbor happened 71 years ago on December 7th, 1941, but remnants of this World War II attack are still being felt by residents living at Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, California. This neighborhood has been called a “textbook case of environmental justice.” As reported by the Earth Island Journal, this community’s battle for environmental justice has been almost a century-long battle.

The EPA declared a shipyard near this community a Superfund site in 1989. This was due to contamination from asbestos, PCBs, and, most controversially, radioactive materials. The U.S. Navy and EPA have been trying to clean up the radiation from this site for decades, but to enable the sale of the property to a very lucrative real-estate development deal with the Lennar Corporation. Not for civilian safety. Activists believe that should the Navy and EPA get away with this subpar cleanup, then the equivalent of transporting the fallout from Hiroshima across the Pacific to the Bayview-Hunters Point community will go untouched.  

The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood was again in the public eye in the Fall of 2022, when the EPA made it known that it does not intend to hold the Navy responsible for a full cleanup. Mr. Schwartz of the Earth Island Journal reported that failure to do so would disregard Proposition P, a measure passed overwhelmingly by San Francisco voters in 2000 (and adopted by the city’s board of supervisors in 2001). This measure also urged that the site be cleaned up to the agency’s most protective standards for safe residential use without restrictions.

According to Environmental Policy Analyst, Daniel Hirsch, of the San Francisco Examiner, the EPA “intends to allow the use of far weaker limits and let the Navy walk away from much of the pollution at the site, relying on unenforceable land-use restrictions and covering up rather than cleaning up the radioactivity and toxic chemicals.” The EPA’s vague assurances has only led to more questions for the community of Bayview-Hunters Point.  

Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction and a longtime community leader at Hunters Point, believes that the Navy’s use of Battelle and other federal contractors tied to the Navy and polluters is the opposite of independent oversight. He further says, “The plans by the Navy and EPA to leave large amounts of radioactive and toxic waste buried and capped at the shipyard are blatant environmental racism, especially as sea levels and groundwater are rising and will eventually flood and spread the contamination further into the community.” Also, Dr. Robert Gould, President of the San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility expressed outrage at “the abdication of EPA’s public duty” in their decision to let the Navy off the hook. 

On the other side of the debate is San Francisco Mayor, London Breed, who has gone on record in support of the Navy’s cleanup plans, describing them as “robust and appropriate.” In response to the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors President, Shamann Walton, asserted the EPA’s decision to allow a limited cleanup, saying that “the board will have a say on whether or not the city will accept land transfers from the Navy.”

So, What Can Environmental Justice Advocates Do?

As we approach the remembrance of Pearl Harbor 71 years later, environmental activists across the nation will continue to keep a watchful eye on what happens at Bayview-Hunters Point, noting that should the Navy and EPA get away with a substandard cleanup at a heavily contaminated site, we can only imagine what they could do to less affluent and less well-organized communities in other parts of the country.

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