Radioactive Waste: Old Records Reveal History of Navy Shipyard Dumping
Davis, Lisa, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
It started with a story about fish.
I'd written a feature story on the inventor of a submersible vehicle and his quest to explore the deepest channel of the ocean. In researching the story, I stumbled onto what amounted to a footnote about fish feeding off of barrels of nuclear waste dumped long ago near the Farallon Islands. The subject caught my interest, and I scratched at it a bit whenever I had time.
Eventually, fish became toxic-waste dumping, which led to environmental cleanup, which led back to the source of the undersea nuclear material - the former Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco, a 500-acre decommissioned naval base that the city plans to take over and develop into, among other things, 1,800 units of housing.
After more than a year of digging into historical records, interviewing former employees, reviewing environmental cleanup reports, and talking to scientists, we produced a two-part series, "Fallout," that essentially did what the Navy had failed to do: disclose the history of nuclear activity at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
The series focused on a secret government research facility known as the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), which operated at the Hunters Point Shipyard from 1946 to 1969. The lab originally was created to study, and attempt to decontaminate, ships involved in a series of atomic bomb tests near the Bikini Islands known as Operation Crossroads. The lab went on to become the military's largest facility for applied nuclear research, and was involved in every nuclear test the government performed during that time.
NRDL handled almost every kind of radioactive material known to man - including, at one point; enough plutonium to kill 15 million people. Its scientists often experimented with and disposed of nuclear material with little apparent concern that it was operating in the middle of a major metropolitan area.
On one occasion, they spread radioactive material on the ground to practice cleaning it up. Another time, NRDL scientists hung a radioactive source off the fantail of a ship in the San Francisco Bay just to see what it would do. The Navy oversaw the dumping of tons of radioactive sand and acid into San Francisco Bay, and burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler, discharging the smoke into the atmosphere. Navy officials also scuttled an old aircraft carrier filled with radioactive waste in the bay outside San Francisco.
How did we learn this?
From yet another feature story, I knew a bit about the National Archives and Records Administration branch in San Bruno, Calif., and some of the old records collections housed there. For unknown reasons, there are very few actual records from Hunters Point Shipyard in the archives, but many records (650 cubic feet, to be exact) from NRDL, probably because the lab's researchers played a key role in advancing nuclear science. Of course, for much the same reason, many of the NRDL records remain classified.
Thankfully, they are also very old records. And because of their age, many of the NRDL records were eligible for declassification. All federal records have a prescribed life span, meaning that they are retained in certain locations for certain periods of time, and classified for specific reasons and lengths of time. Generally, if the time period and reason for classification have expired, the records are eligible to be declassified. (That's not to say we gained access to everything we requested - far from it. For example, anything relating to nuclear technology that is still in use anywhere, in any form, remained classified, as did many records on individuals assigned to NRDL). Thus began a routine: I requested about 10 boxes of NRDL or shipyard records at a time. The archivists notified me when whatever I was allowed to see of the group was ready. Then, I'd spend a few days in the locked room, opening boxes - some full, some empty except for a few pieces of paper.
By this time, my editor, John Mecklin, had decided that the project was worth my full-time attention and freed me from regular reporting duties. Of course, neither of us knew how long it would take. This was a big decision for a publication staffed by seven full-time writers, and my colleagues carried the extra workload graciously.
I learned a lot through those old records, simply by reading correspondence between the commander's office and other parts of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and the shipyard. Also, invoices provided information about what was going on four or five decades ago. (For instance, in 1952, United Airlines sought payment for delivering a 67-pound shipment of synthetic radioisotopes to the base).
Between trips to the archives, I spent time searching records through the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear and National Security and the Department's Coordination and Information Center outside Las Vegas. This is home to records of the former Atomic Energy Commission, one of several agencies involved with NRDL.
But this story wasn't just about records.
No one, but no one, keeps in touch like military veterans. The National Association of Atomic Veterans graciously allowed me to post a note in its newsletters, seeking vets who'd been at NRDL and/or Hunters Point Shipyard. Every once in awhile, someone would call. And for every veteran who called, there were two others he knew.
One day a man from Pennsylvania called and said that he had not been at Hunters Point, but remembered talking to someone who'd worked on a ship based in San Francisco that was dumping barrels of radiation into the ocean. That's how I met John Gessleman, a gunner's mate in the Navy in the 1950s, whose job included escort duty on a barge that carried containers of radioactive waste under the Golden Gate Bridge out toward the Farallon Islands, where they were dumped at sea. He and others followed orders to shoot the barrels full of holes to make them sink.
Through old newspaper stories, I learned that there had been congressional hearings on the Farallon Island dump site in 1980, and I found some of the scientists who'd testified. As time passed, I contacted federal, state and local agencies trying to find out who monitors the dump site. The answer, as it turned out, was that no one monitors a nuclear waste dump in a national marine sanctuary. In fact, no one has ever determined how much waste had been dumped, or exactly where it is located.
I also connected with Dr. W. Jackson Davis, a professor of international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who had studied the Farallon Island dump in the 1970s. Davis was helpful, not only in sharing the findings of his research, but also in helping me to understand some of the more technical aspects of handling radiation and its waste. Davis suggested that some of his graduate students might be interested in an internship that included environmental journalism. I brought the idea to my editor. We hammered out an internship agreement with the dean of the school, and within a few weeks we had a solid group of five students assigned to review documents relating to the cleanup of Hunters Point Shipyard. Over several months, I chased down environmental-impact statements and other supporting documentation on the base cleanup from the San Francisco Public Library and from the EPA for the students, and met regularly with them in Monterey.
By this time, I also had a working history of what radiological substances had actually been used on the shipyard. The students created a database from my documents and then, under Dr. Davis' supervision, analyzed the environmental cleanup work that the Navy had done at the former base. (The database was modified and used as part of the Internet presentation of "Fallout.")
As my editor and I began talking about how to put a year's worth of research and reporting into words, it became obvious that the material centered on two distinct locations- the Hunters Point Shipyard, where radioactive waste was created, and the Farallon Island Nuclear Waste Site, where at least some of it was dumped. So we organized the series in two parts: one concentrating on Hunters Point and the second on the Farallons.
In the weeks following publication, San Francisco's congressional delegation, led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, asked the Secretary of the Navy for a response to issues raised in our story. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted into law a voter-approved mandate that the shipyard be cleaned up to the highest standards. Earlier this year, San Francisco entered into an agreement with the Navy specifying that the city will not accept the first parcel of shipyard land until the Navy provides a complete characterization of the dirtiest parts of the shipyard, including the landfill.
And, finally, in March, the Navy released a Historical Radiation Assessment of the shipyard. By comparison to standard Superfund cleanup procedure, the assessment is at least 15 years late; by the Navy's own admission, it should have been completed before environmental remediation began.
In its original environmental reports on the shipyard, the Navy devoted about 20 pages to discussion of radiation used at the site. This new report is 634 pages long. The difference is what Navy contractors refer to, in gross understatement, as "data gaps." Needless to sav, we called it something else.
PERILS IN THE COMMUNITY
At the 1999 IRE Conference in Kansas City, Elizabeth Alex of KSHB-Kansas City offered these tips for reporting on environmental perils and toxic chemicals:
1.Learn the terms. Become familiar with maximum contaminant levels, parts per billion, parts per million, and the known health effects of the chemicals with which you are dealing.
2.Make a map. If you are looking at chemicals in a broad area or neighborhood, a street map is invaluable. Then drive the area or better yet, walk it and meet people.
3.Don't be discouraged by the Department of Health. Health officials swamped with work may not want to confirm or even look at your evidence of a possible problem.
4.Talk to members of the private medical community. Local doctors with nothing on the line can be helpful in determining if a potential health hazard really exists. Veterinarians, too.
5.Tap into academia. College professors may have extensive knowledge of the situation you are researching.You should be able to find one who remains clinical and impartial. Stay clear of those who may be funded by big corporations, or those who make a habit of testifying at trials.
6.FOIA everything you can. Make requests of the EPA and the State Department of Environmental Quality.
7. Use IRE. The organization may have archived stories of similar cases that can help guide you.
8.Prepare for backlash. While people living with a potential problem may be grateful for your interest, city leaders and those worried about property values may not be. Be ready for calls to management, and be sensitive to concerns.
BY LISA DAVIS
Lisa Davis has been a staff writer for New Times Inc. since 1994, first at Phoenix New Times and, since 1996, at SF Weekly. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the 2001 IRE Award.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Radioactive Waste: Old Records Reveal History of Navy Shipyard Dumping. Contributors: Davis, Lisa - Author. Magazine title: Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal. Volume: 25. Issue: 4 Publication date: July/August 2002. Page number: 20+. © Investigative Reporters & Editors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.