San Francisco's planned $8 billion neighbourhood has a radioactive past, and it may put people at a higher risk of cancer than experts thought

  • A new report claims that the Navy’s cleanup efforts at the site of San Francisco’s new $US8 billion neighbourhood rely on outdated safety standards, equivalent to those used by the EPA in 1991.
  • The cleanup level for radium – which is responsible for almost all of the site’s contamination – is nearly 900 times higher than the level permitted by the EPA.
  • These low standards could mean a greater number of workers and future residents could have a higher risk of cancer due to the site’s contamination.

The news keeps getting worse for workers and future residents of the as-yet-undeveloped areas at the San Francisco Shipyard – a former nuclear testing site that is now being transformed into an $US8 billion neighbourhood.

Following the discovery of a dangerous radioactive deck marker near the site’s luxury condos, experts are now claiming that the site’s poor safety standards could also subject workers and residents to a higher risk of cancer.

The US Navy is spearheading a massive cleanup effort led by the US Navy, which tasked a contractor, Tetra Tech, with removing radioactive contaminants. In May, two former Tetra Tech employees were sentenced to eight months in prison for falsifying soil tests.

Read more: ‘It’s a nightmare scenario’: A radioactive object was found in San Francisco’s new $US8 billion neighbourhood

Now, a team of academic researchers claims that the standards used by the Navy to evaluate the site are “grossly outdated,” aligning with the standards used by the Environment Protection Agency for buildings in 1974 and for soil in 1991, as the San Francisco Chronicle first reported. These standards have become far more restrictive over time.

The EPA has developed a threshold for the amount of chemicals allowed in an exposure area, and the researchers concluded that the Navy and Tetra Tech followed cleanup standards that were well below these levels.

In their new report, they contend that the Navy’s cleanup standard for radium – the toxic substance that’s responsible for 99% of the site’s contamination – is almost 900 times higher than the level permitted by the EPA.

This could lead to a cancer risk that’s much greater than previously determined.

According to the researchers, the risk level posed by radium on the Shipyard site is the equivalent of getting one chest X-ray a week for many years.

The Navy has only tested around 10% per cent of potentially contaminated areas, which are scattered throughout the shipyard, after claiming the rest were free from radiation. The area where the neighbourhood is being developed – known as Parcel A – was deemed safe in the 1990s, but is now being tested by the California Department of Public Health.

When it comes to Superfund sites – locations deemed hazardous and in need of cleanup – the EPA tries to ensure that no more than one person in a million gets cancer from the site’s contaminants. The maximum risk allowed by the agency is one in 10,000.

The report finds that the soil alone would put one in 380 people at risk of cancer. The risk posed by the buildings is even higher: one in 37, according to the researchers.

This led them to conclude that the Navy’s standards “seriously undercut public safety.” Based on their findings, they wrote, “it is hard to conceive how the Navy could explain to people that a cleanup goal based on such an astronomically high risk could possibly be OK.”

On Tuesday, the environmental coordinator for the Navy’s cleanup efforts, Derek Robinson, told The Chronicle that the Navy stood by its existing cleanup goals.

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