The level of asbestos contamination, combined with such other pollutants as PCBs and radioactive materials, led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare the Hunters Point a Superfund site in 1989. Superfund sites are sites with an extensive level of contamination from toxic materials. The EPA has the power to compel those responsible for the contamination to clean up the site, or it can use its Superfund monies to cover the cost of cleanup.

Federal, state and local agencies, as well as private citizens and awareness groups, have been working for years on cleaning up the Hunters Point area for current residents. In 1990, following the shipyard’s Superfund designation, workers removed more than 220,000 square feet of building materials containing asbestos from two dozen areas at the site.

Medical literature on the risk of asbestos-related cancer among sailors was reviewed and published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research in 2021. It reviewed a 2020 study of seafarers from five Nordic countries who have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the general public.

Asbestos Contamination

Hunters Point covers more than 600 acres in the southeastern part of San Francisco. Many of the buildings on the site were constructed during and after World War II. During those years, building materials such as roofing shingles and floor tiles contained asbestos. Also, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNSY) sits on a bed of serpentine rock, which is sometimes rich in natural asbestos-containing minerals. Countless scientific studies have linked the mineral fibers to respiratory disease, including mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. The EPA has declared that there is no “safe” level for asbestos exposure.

Many residents have cited ongoing health issues because of asbestos and other contaminants at the HPNSY site. One reported a burning sensation in the mouth, while another tested positive for both asbestos and mercury in the blood. A major health concern for those exposed to asbestos is mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma can take decades to develop. When doctors detect the disease, the patient typically lives less than two years after a diagnosis.

According to a 2017 study published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, shipyard workers with a moderate level of asbestos exposure were nearly four times more likely to die of mesothelioma.

Environmental Impact

The city of San Francisco bought the site in 1980 and built federally subsidized housing for low-income families. Reports later surfaced that the housing units contained asbestos-based epoxies to keep floor tiles in place. The scale of the asbestos contamination at HPNSY has affected hundreds of residents at the townhouse complex built on the site. When one of the units flooded, the floor tiles came loose and the asbestos fibers in the adhesives floated through the air, which made the unit uninhabitable. Residents were forced to move out of the complex due to the dangers from the airborne asbestos.

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In 2006, a renovation crew at the former base created a cloud of dust that contained, among various materials, asbestos fibers from the surrounding rock. Residents and community activist groups allege that Lennar Corporation, a residential construction company working on a redevelopment project at the site, did not report the dust cloud or the high concentrations of asbestos in the dust. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the city’s office of air pollution control, voted to fine the company for failing to monitor asbestos concentration levels.

EPA, Lennar Cooperation

The groups also claim that state and federal environmental officials cooperated with Lennar executives to downplay the impact of asbestos and other pollutants on the job site. One group, the Stop Lennar Action Movement (SLAM), published a series of emails between EPA District Manager Mark Ripperda and officials with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, along with Rob Balas, an environmental consultant for Lennar.

Email messages show that city and federal officials discussed minimizing the impact of the asbestos contamination so that construction could continue at the Hunters Point site. SLAM and other community groups have called for an investigation into the alleged cover-up and that those involved be relieved of their duties.