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Jason Fagone @jfagone
, 27 tweets, 8 min read Read on Twitter
Here is one of the craziest San Francisco housing stories I’ve heard. It begins with an atomic bomb.… 1/x
You have probably seen that image before, maybe in the closing montage of Dr. Strangelove. It’s from an American nuclear test in July 1946, “Shot Baker." 2/x
The military arranged a ghost fleet of empty warships off the shores of Bikini Atoll and detonated two large atom bombs there, to simulate a Soviet attack. They wanted to observe the damage to the ships. Baker was the second test. An underwater bomb. 3/x
The force lifted a 26,000-ton battleship into the air. A million tons of radioactive water rose in a column a mile high. Waves and “radioactive mist" immersed the target ships and turned them into “radioactive stoves” that would have killed any humans aboard. 4/x.
After the test, the U.S. military didn’t know what to do with all these highly contaminated ships. They decided to send many of them to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, because the Navy kept a group of radiation scientists there. Maybe they’d know? 5/x
So the radioactive fallout from the atomic tests was brought to San Francisco, on these ships. 6/x
At Hunters Point, the Navy tried to decontaminate the ships. It didn’t work. They were too radioactive. Contamination got spread around. Sailors’ clothing became radioactive and had to be washed in a special facility, a “Radioactive Laundry” or “Contaminated Laundry.” 7/x
In 1969, the Navy closed its radiological laboratories at Hunters Point. Many buildings were demolished. But radioactivity remained, in the soil and the drain lines. The Navy mostly left it there instead of cleaning it up. 8/x
And in later years, the Navy built some new buildings on top of the old soil. This was one of them. Building 606. Constructed in 1989. The Navy put it where the Radioactive Laundry used to be, in the part of the shipyard where the radiological laboratories were born. 9/x
You can see here the outline of the old Radioactive Laundry footprint (it was known as Building 503), contained within the outline of the larger new building, 606. (This is a Navy image from 2004; the green buildings are “radiologically impacted,” possibly contaminated.)
Ok. So the Navy builds this new structure on top of the former Radioactive Laundry in 1989. They scoop off the top 5.5 feet of soil, set it to the side, make a crawl space, and cover the crawl with a concrete slab. A prevention strategy. 11/x.
But they don’t check the soil for radioactivity. They don’t know what is there. 12/x.
Building 606 was originally supposed to support a retiring battleship; the battleship never comes. So it sits mostly vacant for six years. And in the early 1990s, the city of San Francisco starts eyeing it. It’s a huge empty building in a city without a lot of those! 13/x
Turns out that the SF Police Department is crunched for space. Their Tactical Division is spread across 4 locations in the city, with nowhere to train — specialized units like SWAT, the Honda dirt-bike unit, the bomb squad, the K-9 unit, the crime lab. 14/x
You see where this is going. The city leases Building 606 from the Navy in 1996, for below-market rent, because, well, it’s a Superfund waste site. And before long, more than 100 police officers and civilians are stationed in the shipyard.
In the lease documents, the Navy didn’t disclose that the building was on the site of a former Radioactive Laundry. They called it by a more innocuous name. 16/x
The Navy also didn’t mention that there were serious problems with lead and copper in the shipyard’s drinking water. They only notified the city months after the lease was signed. City was pissed when they found out.
So there were all kinds of problems at and around the building in the first few years cops were there — contaminated tap water, a dirty ventilation system, an accidental release of potentially fatal chlorine gas near the building, a fire at a nearby toxic landfill. 18/x
Some cops got sick. Coughs, headaches, rashes. But all the government agencies in charge of the building — the city, the Navy, the EPA — told the workers of Building 606 not to worry. They’re safe, everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. 19/x
The city dismissed the police employees’ health concerns. In a 2002 city meeting, one official called them “paranoid.” 20/x
But the authorities still didn’t know what was in the soil beneath and around the building, and the unknowns multiplied as years went on. A 2002 probe of that neighborhood of the shipyard found “moderately extensive” and “widespread” contamination from 2 radioactive isotopes 21/x
The Navy said in project documents that more investigation was needed at the police building — Building 606. Four years later, more investigation was still needed and hadn’t been scheduled. This is from a 2008 Navy document. 22/x
As far as we can tell, the soil under the building still hasn’t been checked. In 2011 and 2012, some soil next to the building was tested for radioactivity and given a clean bill of health. But the test was done by Tetra Tech, whose work across the site is now in question. 23/x
We sent long lists of questions to all the agencies involved. They said the building is safe and people working there haven’t been put at risk. There’s more in our full story! Please read and support local investigative journalism.… 24/x
We’re also launching a podcast, @toxicpodcast, produced by @king_kaufman. The first episode includes six retired officers who were stationed at Building 606, talking about the bizarre experience of working at a Superfund site.… 25/25.
Oh, and there are still 40 city employees who work at Building 606 today. If you are one of them, please get in touch with us.
Forgot to post this link -- 25 primary documents from our shipyard investigation. Navy archives, lease paperwork, radioactivity reports, city memos, etc…
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