In 1939, the U.S. Navy purchased a commercial dry dock facility at Hunters Point in San Francisco Bay. From 1941 to 1974 it was an active naval base, where the Navy built, repaired, and maintained the Pacific surface and submarine fleet. Civilian employees and base personnel routinely ripped out and reworked the machinery of hundreds of ships, including many boilers, steam pipes, and turbines covered with asbestos insulation. During World War II alone, 600 warships were overhauled or had battle damage repaired at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
In 1946, the Navy conducted atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. After the tests were completed, both the ships used as targets and those that watched from a distance were found to be contaminated with radioactive material. The most heavily contaminated ships were sunk at Kwajalein Atoll. Other ships were brought to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for decontamination. The Navy sandblasted the ships clean. Most of the waste grit was disposed of at sea, but some blew into the bay.
To study nuclear radiation more fully, the Navy established the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at Hunters Point. The NRDL conducted radiation and fallout experiments from 1948 to 1969, studying such things as the properties of fallout and its effect on animals. More radiation was released on the site.
The base was closed in 1974 and leased to a machine shop. But the company used Hunters Point as a disposal ground, dumping all sorts of hazardous waste on the property.
Hunters Point is now one of the most heavily polluted areas in the nation and has been designated a Superfund site. It’s been contaminated with many different industrial wastes, including sandblast grit, paints, solvents, fuels and oils, acids, bases, metals, PCBs, and asbestos. Some of these wastes are leaking into the San Francisco Bay. In a 1994 lawsuit, Hunters Point was charged with 19,000 counts of violating the Clean Water Act, based on the Navy’s own reports to the EPA.
Cleanup of the site has begun. One lab took more than 2,000 samples of materials on the former base to identify those that contain asbestos. In 1990, 226,000 square feet of asbestos-containing debris was removed and hauled off-site for disposal.
There have been many mesothelioma lawsuits filed for workers exposed at Hunters Point. In April 2002, a US Navy Veteran who worked as an electrician and was dying of mesothelioma (A rare form of asbestos cancer) was awarded $33.7 million for working around Foster Wheeler boilers lined with asbestos. In July 2002, a civilian electrician, also with meso, was awarded $4.2 million for exposure from Union Carbide’s “Bakelite” electrical switches.