Fourteen years before the lump appeared on his neck, Nelson Lumâs San Francisco police unit was transferred to a new office in an unexpected location: the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
The shipyard is a federal Superfund waste site. By definition, itâs one of the most contaminated places in the country, tainted by radioactivity, heavy metals and other pollution. But in 1996, the toxic land offered what few places in San Francisco could: lots of space for a low price.
That year, the city decided to lease a large, empty building owned by the Navy for below-market rates. Known only as Building 606, it became the new headquarters for some specialized police units, including the SWAT team, the bomb squad, the Honda Unit, the K-9 Unit and the crime lab. Before long, more than 100 officers and civilians were clocking in at the shipyard every day.
It was safe, according to the city and the Navy. They told the people in Building 606 that any nearby contaminants were minimal, too scant to cause harm.
âThe building is clean, absolutely, and the area around it is clean,â a Navy representative promised in a March 1997 news story.
But at times, the cops felt unsure. Lum took Police Academy recruits on training runs around the shipyard, and more than once he was stunned when they passed Navy contractors outfitted in HazMat gear: goggles, respirators, disposable Tyvek uniforms.
âIâm in my shorts, and here are these guys walking around in space suits,â Lum recalled. âWhatâs wrong with this picture?â
Lum, 70, spent thousands of hours at the shipyard over eight years. He worked there every day for about a year, then returned regularly as a sergeant to lead SWAT exercises and academy trainings. He retired in 2005 and didnât think much more about it.
Nelson Lum holds a photo of himself as a San Francisco police officer. Lum, now retired, worked in Building 606 at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a Superfund cleanup site. Lum and several other officers contracted cancer but are not sure working at Building 606 is linked to the disease. (Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)
In 2011, his wife noticed the lump on his neck. A biopsy confirmed it was malignant. Lum had thyroid cancer.
He asked his doctors if there might be a link to his time at the shipyard. They said they had no way of knowing.
Now cancer-free after two surgeries and two courses of radiation, Lum has been thinking about the shipyard again in recent months, alarmed by a scandal that has rocked the Navyâs billion-dollar effort to remove toxic material from the site.
The cleanup is a sprawling drama with a large cast. The Navy owns the land and hires contractors to test it and haul away contaminants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators oversee the work. But somewhere along the line things went awry. Half a dozen former radiation workers have accused the main cleanup contractor, Tetra Tech, of violating safety standards to save money and make the site appear clean when it wasnât. Two former Tetra Tech supervisors were sentenced to federal prison this year after admitting they falsified records and swapped soil samples. And the Navy and EPA say they have found wider patterns of likely fraud or manipulation in many radioactivity measurements across the site.
Tetra Tech has stood by its work and contested the whistle-blowersâ allegations, saying that âclaims made against Tetra Tech EC by a handful of former subcontractors and employees are false.â Yet now the Navy is preparing to retest much of the shipyard.
âWe pretty much believed that the city would not put us in danger,â Lum said. But lately, after hearing about problems with the cleanup, âI mean, it makes you wonder.â
Lum is among hundreds of cops and civilians who worked at 606 over the years, and one of many trying to figure out if they were put at risk. The city still leases the building; about 40 police employees work there today.
In early May, another retired SFPD officer contacted The Chronicle, asking whether reporters had heard of Building 606. Since then, Chronicle reporters have interviewed 30 former police officers who worked there and have examined hundreds of documents related to 606 and its surroundings, including leases, emails between public officials and decades-old Navy files.
Those records show the shipyard posed threats to city employees from the beginning. According to city and Navy reports, Building 606âs tap water and ventilation system were initially contaminated, and toxic gases were released near the building on multiple occasions. The Navy later discovered radioactive materials next door to Building 606 and in surrounding areas, raising the possibility of wider problems. But the Navy waited years to probe further â and when an investigation was finally performed, it was done by Tetra Tech, whose work is now in question.
An aerial view shows the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco in 2012. City officials for decades have been trying to develop the area, much of which is a federal Superfund site contaminated with a wide range of toxic chemicals. (Paul Chinn / The Chronicle 2012 | San Francisco Chronicle)
Retired officers told The Chronicle that potential hazards werenât clearly explained.
In its heyday, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was a mighty economic engine driving jobs to the Bay Area, and for the last quarter century, the city has been trying to bring it back to life. But radioactive and chemical toxins in the shipyardâs soil have proven difficult to remove. A massive cleanup effort has consumed more than two decades and $1 billion and still isnât done. The Navy now plans to retest much of the land for radioactivity, amid a scandal over faked soil samples.
âWe called it the Land of the Lost because they left us out there,â said Paul Swiatko, 68, a retired officer who was stationed at 606 with the Honda Unit, cops who rode dirt bikes. âWe were kept in the dark.â
The Navy and SFPD sent statements in response to questions for this story, emphasizing that the building is safe.
âBased on a review of all available site related information, the Navy remains confident that Building 606 is safe for occupancy,â wrote Derek Robinson, the Navyâs environmental coordinator for the shipyard. A police spokesman said âconcerns and potential issuesâ about 606 over the last two decades have been documented by commanders and âpromptly addressed.â He said the San Francisco Department of Public Health âhas consistently assured SFPD that Building 606 is safe for the men and women who work there.â
The health department is the lead city agency monitoring the shipyard cleanup. In response to questions about Building 606, a spokeswoman wrote, âIt is very important that the past and current occupants of Building 606 know that they were and are safe, and that there is no evidence of exposure to health hazards related to the Shipyard cleanup in that building. Because there is no exposure, there is no risk.â
An EPA spokeswoman said in an email that the lease restricted cops to safe areas, and added that the building was designed to protect workers from any contaminants that might lay beneath. âEPA believes the workers in Building 606 are protected from potential radiological and volatile organic compound contamination,â she said.
This, in essence, has been the official story for decades, told in certainties and absolutes. The shipyard has been portrayed as a known quantity and its cleanup as a tidy process, controlled by restrictions noted on paper, fences in the field, and oversight by multiple regulators.
The reality is more complex, as the saga of Building 606 demonstrates. It goes beyond cops and dirt, helping explain why San Franciscoâs most important redevelopment project since the 1906 earthquake has consumed a quarter century and a billion dollars and still isnât done. Records show that officials shortened environmental reviews as part of a scramble to open the shipyard to commerce. The Navy distorted the history and potential risks of the Building 606 site. And the city signed on. The ones with the least power, and least information, were the hundreds of people who worked there. And for them, the shipyard was a place of chaos, danger and mystery.
A million tons of water shoot up in a giant column a mile high near Navy ships during an atomic-bomb test off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific on July 25, 1946. Many of the vessels, which were heavily contaminated with radiation, were sent to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, where Navy scientists were studying the effects of such radiation. (Getty Images / Science Source 1946 | San Francisco Chronicle)
On July 25, 1946, off Bikini Atoll, a set of small islands in the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. military performed one of the most dramatic atomic tests of the 20th century, known as Shot Baker. A large bomb was detonated underwater. The ocean heaved. In âa giant and unprecedented spectacle,â as one military account later described it, a million tons of water spurted up in a great white column a mile high, spreading into an incandescent dome of toxic moisture.
At the dawn of the Cold War, the military wanted to know how ships and people would be damaged by the deadly and long-lasting radioactive poisons spread by nuclear explosions. So they brought nearly 100 âtargetâ ships to Bikini, some loaded with live pigs and sheep, and set off two atomic bombs at close range, the second of which was Baker.
The results startled U.S. officials. They had expected some contamination but not the near-total poisoning they observed among the assembled cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. Shot Baker soaked the ships, turning them into âradioactive stovesâ that âwould have burned all living things aboard with invisible and painless but deadly radiation,â officials wrote in a secret cable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.
The Navy tried to decontaminate the ships at Bikini, sending in crews of sailors to scrub the decks with soap and brushes. It didnât work. Their clothes became radioactive. The pigs started to keel over and die.
The military ordered the âmost heavily contaminated shipsâ to proceed to Hunters Point, where a group of Navy scientists and civilians had been studying radiation. The U.S. government hoped these experts might know how to handle the radioactive death armada it had created.
Eighteen target ships and 61 support ships made the voyage to San Francisco. When they arrived, the scientists examined them, dragging the nuclear fallout into the shipyard.
First known as the RADLAB, then the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, or NRDL, the Navyâs research group was centered in the southern end of the shipyard. The 500-acre shipyard is shaped a bit like a human left hand. The original NRDL buildings stood in the depression of the palm â the same area where, decades later, hundreds of elite San Francisco police officers would be stationed.
Among these buildings were âhotâ chemistry and biology labs, kennels for animals given lethal doses of radiation, and storage vaults for radioactive elements used in the experiments. The Navy also stashed drums of radioactive waste in temporary shacks in the area.
In the decades to come, one of the buildings in particular would shape the police presence at the shipyard: Building 503, originally a kitchen and mess hall. After the A-bomb tests, Navy leaders realized that a special facility was needed to wash the contaminated clothing of sailors at Hunters Point. An âurgentâ request for funds was made, and a laundry was installed inside 503 â a âRadioactive Laundry.â
The 1940s and â50s were a more lenient era , safetywise. Navy records describe the shipyardâs first radiological safety section as a âsmall bandâ of junior officers with equipment consisting âof one coffee pot and six Geiger counters, only two of which worked.â To illuminate the dials of instruments and base signage, the Navy used glowing paint made of radium-226, a powerful radiation emitter that decays into radon gas. Spills of radioactive materials were not uncommon. At the Radioactive Laundry, each wash cycle could flush more than 100 gallons of wastewater through the pipes and drains, potentially leaking into the soil.
The work left behind unknown quantities of what the Navy calls âradionuclides of concern,â everything from the radium in the dials to the components of atomic fallout and science experiments, including cesium-137, which emits harmful beta and gamma rays, and strontium-90, which mimics calcium and damages bone marrow,potentially leading to cancer.
Photo: Bob Campbell / The Chronicle 1955
The NRDL closed in 1969, but radioactivity remained, in the drain lines and the soil, and the Navy mostly just left it there, razing former rad-lab structures and creating some new buildings atop the old soil.
This was the case with Building 606, the future police office. Originally intended to support a historic battleship, it was a roomy steel rectangle, with 54,000 square feet of warehouse space on the first floor and another 36,000 square feet of offices. The Navy built it in 1989 directly above the former site of the Radioactive Laundry. Its parking lot to the south grazed the soil footprints of two former radiation laboratories.
Despite the history of the property, the Navy didnât check the soil for likely contaminants such as radium-226, cesium-137 and strontium-90. Instead, it decided on a strategy of prevention. It scooped off the top 5Â˝ feet of soil from the old laundry site and set it to the side, using the void as a crawl space beneath a portion of the new building.The crawl space was ventilated and covered with a concrete slab. Such barriers may diminish radiation and other hazards, but donât necessarily eliminate them.
As soon as it was completed, 606 was no longer needed. The battleship wasnât coming to San Francisco, after all. The building sat vacant until 1991, when it was briefly pressed into service as a military post office during Operation Desert Storm. Then it emptied again until 1994, when a film company subleased it temporarily as a soundstage for the childrenâs movie âJames and the Giant Peach.â
The film crew entered, the stop-motion models were shot, the peach ascended into a cartoon-blue sky, and again 606 was abandoned, another shell in a ghost town.
The city of San Francisco saw an opportunity.
Good to go
A list of vacant shipyard buildings started to circulate through San Francisco city offices in 1994.
For city officials, especially soon-to-be-mayor Willie Brown, the list was like a treasure map. They had dreamed of developing the shipyard, of transforming the desolate, windblown acres into houses, businesses and new streams of tax revenue.
It would help grow the city and the surrounding neighborhood, Bayview-Hunters Point, a historically black community with high rates of poverty, asthma and other health problems. Residents had long been concerned about the toxic acres next door.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown exchanges pens with Navy Secretary Gordon England in Washington after signing an agreement with the Navy for a master plan for the cleanup of hazardous waste at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi watch on Jan. 23, 2002. (Terry Ashe / Associated Press 2002 | San Francisco Chronicle)
âThe investment opportunity here represents something thatâs unique in America,â Brownwould later say at the groundbreaking ceremony for the first housing development on shipyard land. âThere is no other piece of soil as potentially lucrative and profitable for the public sector and private sector.â
Brown is a principal at an investment fund that raises money for the siteâs master developer, Lennar/FivePoint; a former Brown adviser who worked on shipyard leases, Kofi Bonner, is FivePointâs co-chief operating officer.
In the beginning, no one knew how much the shipyard would cost to clean up, or how long it would take, but everyone was in a hurry to get started. The city wanted to develop the land. The Navy wanted to be rid of it. And Brown, who took over the mayorâs office in 1996, wanted a legacy.
To the city, leasing some of the shipyardâs empty buildings seemed like a logical first step, and it had a perfect tenant in mind: the Police Department. At the time, its Tactical Division was spread across four city locations, decreasing its effectiveness. The city priced the monthly rents for buildings of similar size: $275,052 for a warehouse next to Candlestick Park, $138,000 for space on Harbor Bay Island in Alameda. In contrast, Building 606 would cost a mere $18,000.
Members of the San Francisco Police Departmentâs Special Operations Tactical Company take a group photo outside Building 606 at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Some officers who worked in the building worry that hazards in the shipyard may have compromised their health. (San Francisco Police Department | San Francisco Chronicle)
On Feb. 13, 1996, Brown appeared at Building 606 with Navy officials, announcing the deal: The cityâs development agency would lease 606 and two additional buildings at Hunters Point, subleasing 606 to the Police Department. Brown hailed it as a first step in bringing life back to the shipyard.
âThe sooner the Navy gets out of town, the better,â Brown joked.
On Wednesday, Brown, who writes a column for The Chronicle, said police leadership pushed for the site and he supported the idea: âMy capable police chiefs at the time recommended using that site, and I approved it. We were working with the information we had at the time.â
Brown said he couldnât recall specifics behind the move to the shipyard. But city documents from 1996 suggest he played an active role and was a driving force behind it. A city development specialist referred to âthe Mayorâs desire to place the Field Operations Bureau of the Police Department in Building 606,â and a police captain âsaid he thought the Mayor wanted the SFPD out there long term.â
When Brown and others pitched the 606 deal to the public, the focus was on the promise of economic development, not the health and environmental challenges of running a busy office at a Superfund site. In documents required by federal law, however, the Navy and EPA had been taking an inventory of toxic material.
At Superfund sites authorities set âcleanup goals,â acceptable levels of different contaminants based on the cancer risk posed to humans living or working on the site. In the early 1990s, the Navy found substances in the soil around Building 606 at elevated levels requiring cleanup, including heavy metals like lead that can cause brain damage and industrial chemicals like benzene. To the west lay two toxic areas: a waste dump 800 feet away, containing about 2,750 radioactive radium dials, according to one city estimate, and a landfill farther north that was full of hazardous chemicals from a ship-repair company.
As early as 1993, the Navy also knew there were serious problems with lead and copper in the drinking water supplied to shipyard buildings. The water was corrosive to pipes, leaching lead into the water at unsafe levels.
Although the Navy listed some known hazards in lease documents for Building 606, the leasing process was built for speed. The original term of the lease was short, limited to a year and a half. The Navy concluded that a temporary police presence would cause âno significant impactâ to human safety or the environment, which cleared the way for an abbreviated review of the site.
The Navy offered the building âas isâ and included a few restrictions: The city had to put a fence around 606 and couldnât dig in the soil without Navy approval. âAlthough contaminants may be present immediately outside and nearby Building 606, they are not accessible if proper precautions are followed,â the Navy wrote.
The siteâs extensive radioactive history was summarized in a few brisk and misleading paragraphs. âNo radiological hazards are expected.â
The Navy didnât mention that a Radioactive Laundry had operated on the land where Building 606 sits. The Navy gave the former structure a more innocuous name, Shipâs Subsistence and Laundry, and wrote that it had no history of âthe storage or use of hazardous materials.â
As for the lead and copper in drinking water, the Navy didnât mention that either, although the sublease to the Police Department did point out the moral dangers of doing business with Northern Ireland or Myanmar, as required by city code.
The EPA signed off on the paperwork, the Board of Supervisors approved the lease, and the city prepared to move in â over the objections of the Police Officers Association. The city health department promised to monitor the copsâ well-being. An industrial hygienist would be assigned to Building 606 to keep the police informed about any risks posed by the evolving cleanup.
âHazardous waste sites can contain many unknowns,â city health official Vickie Wells wrote in a letter to a police captain.
To reassure the police, the SFPD held a big meeting in January 1997. The Navy and Mayor Brownâs office sent representatives. The Navy told cops their area was clean.
âI was worried because I knew they did nuclear testing,â said Alexandria Brunner-Jones, a K-9 officer at Building 606 from 1997 to 2010. âThey said, âNo, weâve done all the soil samples, itâs clean, youâre good to go.ââ
At one point, according to several officers who were there, an officer asked the mayorâs aide: âIf your kids were to attend school at that Superfund site in the shipyard, would you be OK with it?â
After a long pause, the aide replied, âWell, I canât answer that question.â
âYou just did,â the cop said.
From the main gate of the shipyard, itâs a mile to Building 606. Start at the top of the hill, on a 75-acre chunk of land known as Parcel A, where a private developer now sells million-dollar homes, and drive downhill into a grim plain of mostly derelict buildings that stretches to the bay.
Crows, wind, dirt, broken windows. Keep going south, toward the water, and one building stands out, an intact two-story structure with light-gray siding and four palm trees flanking the entrance: Building 606.
âWe trusted that it was a safe area,â said Eddie St. Andre, 80, a retired SWAT officer. âThat the city wouldnât even allow us to go out there if it was a hazard.â
The cops didnât know it when they moved in, but the building had been sitting dormant for six years, and the Navy hadnât cleaned it. When the ventilation system was turned on, years of accumulated dust and other debris went coursing through the building.
The tap water tasted funny, too. Occupants complained of a greasy texture, an oily smell. The Police Department brought in bottled water, at a cost of $450 a month.
Cops started getting sick. A physician with UC San Francisco examined eight officers and documented dry coughs, eye irritation, rashes and headaches, as well as âdizziness, light headedness, tiredness, weakness, or irritability.â Mark Madsen, a former member of the Tactical Division who worked at 606 for 12 years, said he developed a rash across his stomach and groin. His doctor, stumped, gave him a topical cream for psoriasis.
At the time, a few officers tipped off reporters, hoping the city would rethink the move, but police commanders said it was too late to reverse course. Asked for comment, one Navy official suggested in a March 1997 article that the cops were lazy.
âI know the building is safe,â said Domenic Zigant, regional base-conversion manager for the Navy. âIt appears the police officers donât want the longer commute.â
In a July 1997 letter, four months after Zigantâs promise of safety, the Navy finally informed the city about high levels of lead and copper in the shipyardâs drinking water â a fact the Navy had known since 1993. The city fired back, âWhy the delay in notification?â and asked if the Navy had told other shipyard tenants about the âlong term lead problem.â
By that point, the city hygienist stationed at 606 was flagging a wide range of possible hazards, including the buildingâs tap water. Edward Ochi tracked the results of multiple tests in memos to health department leaders. In a June 1997 test of 606âs drinking water, petroleum compounds were found in every water sample; two months later, one sample tested positive for lead at 17 times the safe level, Ochi reported. The water also contained trihalomethanes, chemicals that can cause heart and liver problems. Two years later, city officials were still struggling to fix the water, according to a 1999 email by the health departmentâs Vickie Wells. She wrote that it was the cityâs problem to solve; the Navy wasnât likely to be much help, âgiven the minimal amount of rent being paid.â
The hygienist Ochi also warned his bosses about âextremely poorâ communication from the Navy, saying he and the police at 606 rarely knew where Navy contractors were going to be working. He shared an astonishing story: In fall 1997, Navy contractors working at the toxic landfill accidentally punched holes in buried cylinders of chlorine gas â a deadly substance that can dissolve lung tissue when inhaled. The incident happened the equivalent of a few city blocks away from 606, but the Navy didnât tell the people in the building, who only heard about it later from a representative with a state water agency. Subsequent updates, Ochi said, came from a nearby sandwich shop.
âFailure to immediately and (adequately) address concerns regarding site hazards, both real and perceived will result in illnesses and human suffering, losses in productivity, and ongoing morale problems,â Ochi warned.
Asked about the memos, a health department spokeswoman said the city had acted on Ochiâs recommendations and took steps to improve communication with the Navy. She described the issues found at 606 as typical of dormant buildings. The hygienists monitored the air and water on a regular basis and repeatedly concluded the building was safe. Later tests of the water found no problems, according to a 1999 memo by the hygienist at the time, who believed the issues had been resolved by âflushingâ the pipes. A Police Department spokesman said this month that bottled water is still supplied to 606 âas a courtesy.â
Cops had more to worry about than the building itself. They had to navigate the muddy roads of the shipyard to get to work in the morning, to leave for patrols in the city, and to go home at night. On regular training days, they might be stuck at the shipyard for 16 hours at a time, roaming far beyond Building 606.
K-9 officers ran their dogs in the fields, teaching them to sniff out bombs and drugs. The bomb squad fired explosives into dirt targets, and the SWAT team practiced searches in empty buildings containing asbestos and lead paint, stirring up dust that dulled their shoes. They shared the roads with trucks hauling tainted soil out of the shipyard, 80 to 100 truckloads per day during heavy periods, totaling tens of thousands of tons.
The city hygienists sometimes taped memos to the wall telling the police not to enter certain areas of the site. But cops questioned the hygienistsâ ability to protect them. There was a lot of turnover in the role; in the first 10 years, six different hygienists served at 606 and the position was vacant for about five months in 1999 after Ochi left.
San Francisco Police Officer Lewis Fong, who is now retired, during an August 2007 motorcycle training near Building 606 at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. (Kelvin Lai / Courtesy Lewis Fong | San Francisco Chronicle)
Police commanders also sometimes defied restrictions put in place by the hygienists or the Navy, according to former Muni Transit and Honda Unit Officer Bob Johnston. During a training program in 1999, Johnston said, he and other police were told to do crowd-control exercises in abandoned buildings near 606. Commanders âhad no permission to be in there,â Johnston said. âThey told us to keep quiet about it.â Asked about the incident, a police spokesman said the department has âno knowledgeâ of such an exercise near 606.
Stuck in the shipyardâs information vacuum, the cops were forced to interpret the strange things they saw, heard and smelled. And from time to time, they got hints that all wasnât right.
One day, a copâs shoe melted. Heâd gone for a run in a fairly new pair of running shoes and stowed them in his locker. By the next day, one of the shoes had âjust absolutely disintegrated,â said Robert Malliaras, 59, who spent 12 years at the shipyard with SWAT and the Honda Unit.
On another occasion, a Department of Public Works employee refused to mow the overgrown weeds next to 606. âHe goes, âNo, itâs contaminated, Iâm not touching it,ââ recalled Richard Lee, a former SWAT officer at 606 who later became the vehicle fleet manager.
The K-9 dogs started getting sick. At least two previously healthy German shepherds died of cancer after training at the shipyard. One had been trained by Brunner-Jones, including her favorite dog, a sable-colored German shepherd named Crocker. He was 9 when he ran into a glass door at top speed, injuring his spleen. A veterinarian found it full of tumors.
But perhaps the most troubling omen was a fire. Three and a half years after police moved onto the shipyard, smoke began to rise near the waterline. The August 2000 fire smoldered for a month, spewing smoke that was sometimes gray, sometimes multicolored with flares of green or blue. The smoke wafted toward the cops. But they couldnât get a clear answer about what might be burning, they said.
âWe were like, âWhat the hell?ââ recalled Oscar Carcelen, 59, a Muni transit officer who worked at 606 for seven years. âThen we started figuring it out. This is all chemicals from shit they buried for years and years.â
It was the landfill 2,000 feet to the northwest, one of the most tainted parcels at the shipyard. The Navy didnât notify the EPA of the fire until weeks later, according to news reports at the time. The cops said they tried frantically to get information from commanders and were told to avoid going outside when smoke was blowing toward the building.
The Navy was slow to test the gases in the plume that rose from the landfill, waiting three weeks to start collecting daily air samples. After the fire was out and contractors covered the landfill with a âcap,â the Navy reported it had found nine contaminants in air at the landfill, including arsenic and chloroform. A federal health agency concluded the fire could have caused âshort-term adverse health effectsâ but no long-term damage.
The cops wanted out.
That year, the chief of police called the health department, saying that cops at 606 were âconcerned about hazardous radiation exposure,â a health department leader reported to a colleague in an email. The health official thought the city should share more information. âThe police need reassuring,â she wrote. âI think what has happened is that our folks know whats going on, and that there is no risk involved, so have just âdismissedâ the cops fears rather than providing the data, reassurance and guidance that the top command staff are looking for.â
The police who worked in 606 said nothing changed. Two years later, in a meeting of city agencies, one participant described the police employees of 606 as âparanoid,â according to handwritten notes of the meeting.
The 606 cops felt like lab rats, canaries in a coal mine. âWeâre the first ones in,â Carcelen said. âWeâre the blue canaries.â
Grim jokes began to circulate:
Bert Bowers stands near Overlook Park at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where he worked as the chief radiological safety officer for Tetra Tech, the main contractor hired to clean up contaminants at the former military facility in San Francisco. Bowers says he was fired for pointing out that the company was ignoring safety principles. Tetra Tech has said Bowersâ allegations are false. (Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)
At the shipyard, you donât need to use your headlights, because at night, you glow.
Twenty years from now, our balls are going to be green.
According to Madsen, âThe city still said, âHey, you guys are still safe there. We wouldnât put you out there if it wasnât safe.ââ
Assume the worst
Decked out in a white hard hat, safety glasses and steel-toed safety boots, Bert Bowers walked slowly through the dusty fields near Building 606, holding a radiation scanner low to the ground.
It was 2002, and Bowers had just been hired to measure radioactivity at the shipyard. Bowers previously had spent decades as a ârad techâ and supervisor at nuclear plants, teaching the mantra of his profession: Assume the worst until you prove otherwise.
âItâs not rocket science,â Bowers said recently. âItâs just the industry standard.â
The Navy had ordered a survey of the neighborhood around 606 â the birthplace of the rad labs â and it wasnât long before Bowers located trouble spots that caused his device to emit a loud whine that rose in pitch.
âIt was screaming hot,â Bowers recalled â rad-tech parlance for a very high reading. He estimated that one of those areas was no more than 35 or 50 yards from Building 606. Bowers later joined Tetra Tech as its chief radiological safety officer and was fired, he said, for pointing out that the company was ignoring safety principles. Tetra Tech has said Bowersâ claims are false.
Around the same time Bowers found the hot readings with his scanner, more than 300 soil samples from this part of the shipyard, and an area a bit farther west, were tested for radioactivity. Within the top layer of soil, cesium-137 contamination was âmoderately extensive,â according to a Navy report, while radium-226 was âwidespread.â One sample from next to 606 â south of the parking lot, where the Navy radiation labs used to be â showed an amount of radium-226 nearly three times higher than the cleanup goal.
The Navy and the EPA declared in 2004 that areas near Building 606 were âradiologically impacted,â which meant contamination was likely and more investigation needed to be done.
The shipyard had always been a place of mysteries, but with these new findings, the uncertainties were multiplying.
Instead of slowing down, though, the city turned 606 into a destination, former officers said. A helipad was built next door, drawing new traffic to the shipyard, and the city added audiovisual features to a large classroom in 606, offering training courses to cops in the city and beyond. The moves opened the shipyard to more people at a time when the cleanup was about to enter its most intense phase.
Heavy equipment operates at a construction site at the former Hunters Point Shipyard in 2007, which was once a major military facility in San Francisco. (Brant Ward / The Chronicle 2007 | San Francisco Chronicle)
âPeople were out cleaning with white suits and wearing masks, and we never had any of that,â said Madsen. âWe just kept working out here. Working, running, training, showering, eating.â
By 2005, the Navy was worried about the safety of its shipyard tenants, moving to end their leases before contractors started digging up and testing every sewer and storm line for contamination.
âOur main concern was safety,â Doug Gilkey, the Navyâs base closure manager, said in an August 2005 Chronicle article. âThese lines go under the roads. They go under buildings. When we start digging them up, weâre going to have trenches all over the base. Because of the safety, we needed to terminate those leases.â
But city officials, confronted again with the possible dangers of the shipyard â this time by its owner â still didnât want to vacate Building 606.
The city asked to keep the lease. The Navy relented. The cops remained.
Conditions worsened, officers said. Eighteen-wheelers rattled the roads, carrying the concrete chunks of razed buildings and loads of contaminated soil and sand. To control the dust, contractors sprayed water on the same roads the cops were using, swamping their cars and motorcycles with mud.
âIt was filthy,â said Sharon Ferrigno, who worked at Building 606 for four years as a lieutenant in the cityâs Homeland Security Unit. âOur cars were just caked on with that junk.â
The mud âwas in places where we worked out, places where we ate, places where we changed,â said Madsen. âWe were there on a daily basis, up to 16, 18 hours a day sometimes, unprotected.â
âThey never covered those trucks,â Malliaras said. âWhen the wind would blow, and it blew a lot, it would just blow that dirt everywhere.â
Officers werenât worried just about themselves; they felt guilty about taking pieces of the shipyard home to their families, their partners and kids, on their clothes and even in the fur of their K-9 dogs. âSome of these guys, not me, but they slept with their dogs,â said Gene Kalinin, 59, a retired K-9 officer. The dogs âwerenât pets, but they lived with these guys. Some brought them in their houses.â
Paul Swiatko was frustrated enough to write a memo to a captain in 2007. The Honda Unit officers, exposed on their dirt bikes, were getting swamped by âunhealthy dustâ and âsloppy slick mud,â he wrote. The captain agreed that the situation was unacceptable, replying in a letter, âWe should have been out of here well before this construction project ever began.â Swiatko said he never heard more after that.
The city did make a concession, acknowledging in a memo that there was âan inordinate amount of dustâ and agreeing to pay $10,805.64 for 636 vouchers at the Tower Car Wash on Mission Street. Each employee at 606 got two free car washes per month.
The next year, 2009, most of the officers finally left the shipyard. The SFPD relocated the Tactical Division to a building in Potrero Hill, which was more central and allowed for quicker responses to emergencies.
But the city held onto the lease and has kept the crime lab in Building 606, along with 40 employees, even as the central question at 606 remains unanswered: Whatâs in the soil?
When the Tactical Division moved out in 2009, a comprehensive probe of the area had never been performed. In 2011 and 2012, a cleanup contractor finally tested a new set of soil samples â and partly because the contractor was Tetra Tech, the results produced more questions than answers.
Tetra Tech concluded that two areas south of the parking lot were clear of dangerous radioactivity. The company also checked the soil that had been excavated from beneath the building years earlier. Tetra Tech found elevated levels of cesium-137 in a few samples of that soil and disposed of it as âlow-level radioactive waste.â But the Navy said last year that many of Tetra Techâs measurements in this area canât be trusted and need to be retaken.
As for the soil directly beneath 606 â soil that is still there â it was left alone. Authorities had said it needed to be checked for radioactivity. âThe area beneath Building 606 will require a radiological survey, and remediation if necessary,â the Navy wrote in 2008. Based on available records, it doesnât appear this survey has ever been performed.
Today, government agencies are wrestling with large questions about the future of the shipyard â questions about retesting, about politics, about restoring public trust. Meanwhile, the city officials in charge of 606 have been facing more mundane challenges, at an aging building they were asked to leave long ago.
âLadies and Gentlemen, we have another sewer line leak,â a city engineer wrote on March 23, 2016.
The sewage system at 606 had broken down, resulting in periodic floods of liquid waste that threatened to shut down the crime lab. The emergency spawned emails between the city and Navy. âThese issues at Bldg 606 are getting to be numerous and ridiculous,â one Navy staffer complained. Another Navy official pointed out that the city really should have left 606 a decade earlier.
âIf you recall at that time, the Navy wanted to cease all leasing,â the Navy official wrote.
Lewis Fong (left), Richard Tong, Paul Swiatko, Mel Bautista, Mark Madsen and Victor Tsang pose for a reunion photo in May at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard outside Building 606, where they were stationed when they worked as part of the Tactical Division of the San Francisco Police Department. (Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)
To fix the problem, an underground sewer vault was needed, and a pit had to be dug to hold the vault. But because this was Building 606, the question arose: Did the excavated soil need to be scanned for radioactivity? The Navy and city said no, as long as the pit was at least 5 feet away from an area that the Navy will eventually be retesting.
âScanning it will involve extra contracts & will take extra time & money & will delay the project,â the health departmentâs point person on the shipyard, Amy Brownell, emailed a Navy official in November. âAnd since it can be avoided, letâs take the easy path.â
People still in the building remain nervous about radiation, according to recent emails provided by the health and police departments. On May 7, a crime lab staffer emailed the current city hygienist at 606, saying that employees were concerned about radiation in and around the building and asking if the hygienist could perform a radiation test. The hygienist didnât think so: âWe have some old Geiger counters that have not been calibrated for a few years,â he replied. âBeyond that we do not have radiation detection equipment.â
That same week, something happened at 606 that echoed the warnings of communication problems from two decades prior: âOne of our employees was stopped and tested for radiation while walking in an area surrounding the building today,â a crime lab employee emailed the hygienist. Apparently the employee had unknowingly entered a restricted area the Navy had designated for retesting. The hygienist fired off an email to his bosses, asking for information: âCan you please look into this as soon as possible and let me know what is occurring out there.â
Mark Madsen, a former member of the San Francisco Police Department Tactical Division, says he developed a rash across his stomach and groin during the 12 years he worked at Building 606 at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. (Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)
Thereâs a guy in Idaho who keeps track of dead and dying San Francisco cops, a retired SFPD officer named RenĂŠ LaPrevotte. When a police officer dies, he sends an email blast to about a thousand people, paying tribute. âWe call him the Grim Reaper,â said Katherine Portoni, a former SFPD dispatcher. âActually, heâs awesome.â
Portoniâs husband, John, was the subject of a LaPrevotte email. John worked at Building 606 with the Tactical Division. Portoni used to visit him for lunch. âI was like, âWow, what are they doing out here?ââ she recalled. âIt was just a dingy place.â John was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2011 and died 13 months later.
Lately, LaPrevotte has used his email list to connect cops who worked at Building 606, and Madsen and others are doing the same, trying to assemble a picture of their health as a group and to better understand the risks they faced. There are officers who have already survived cancer or blood diseases: Nelson Lum; Sharon Ferrigno, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009 and had it surgically removed; Philip Brown, a former dirt-bike cop, who suffers from an autoimmune disease that destroys red blood cells.
They donât know if the shipyard is to blame. No scientific study of 606 workers has been done, and there is no evidence suggesting cancer rates among this group are higher than normal.
âWe realize that it would be tough to prove,â Madsen said. âThe nature of the job is weâre out in the middle of a lot of things. And so weâd always tell each other, âWell, what if we came down with something? How are we going to prove that we got it from here?â And guys would just throw up their hands.â
On a weekday in May, six of the former shipyard officers who spoke to The Chronicle returned to Hunters Point to have a photo taken.
It was a gray, chilly day. They met at the main gate of the shipyard, where the master developer has already built 300 homes, and colorful banners line construction fences: âA proud heritage, a new beginning.â The back gate offers easier access to 606, so the officers carpooled there, cresting over the hill and descending into the shipyard. A guard waved them through the gate.
A sign warns visitors to the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard that âsafety hazards may be present.â (Photos By Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)
The cityâs current plan is to use 606 for two more years. A new home is being built for the SFPD crime lab and Traffic Division, and when it is complete, in 2020, the Police Department will vacate 606. For now, the lease is active, and the SFPD pays $12,325 per month in rent.
Most of the retired cops hadnât been back to the shipyard in years, and some hadnât seen each other for a while. Standing in front of 606, telling stories, joking around a bit, they started to open up. Behind them, people inside the building could be seen going about their workday.
âIâm worried now,â said Mel Bautista, a retired Honda Unit officer who spent 12 years at the shipyard. âI want to live for a while.â
Across the street to the west, crows circled above a tall pile of dirt next to an empty building. âIâm concerned,â Swiatko said, before a gust of wind rippled his jacket. He laughed and shrugged. âBut what can be done?â
Former dirt-bike cop Richard Tong, 66, clasped his hands behind his back.
âI think that the city could be a lot more honest with us,â he said in a careful, quiet voice. âIf there is contamination out here, let us know about it. Get us out of here, OK? … I always thought the city took care of their people who took care of their people. Weâre taking care of the people out in the public. Why arenât they taking care of us?â
Aside from the new houses back at the main gate, little about the shipyard seemed to have changed, the cops said. The dirt and empty buildings, the fields, 606 itself.
After the picture-taking was done, the former cops got into their cars and drove away, passing a sign on the shipyardâs back gate: âThe Navy is no longer inspecting or maintaining this property at the levels of an operational naval base. Safety hazards may be present.â