The Toxic Legacy of Building 606

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Between poisoned groundwater and heavy metals in the air, sometimes it seems that we’ll all eventually be living on a Superfund site. For The San Francisco Chronicle, Cynthia Dizikes and Jason Fagone report on San Francisco’s Superfund site, Hunters Point, and how the city and Navy knowingly leased office space on contaminated land.

The former shipyard on San Francisco Bay was once a major Naval facility, but its soil contains radioactive material from Atomic tests. The cleanup was expensive and ongoing. The shipyard did have one valuable asset, space, which is rare in the Bay Area, and the city wanted to capitalize on it. Police officers rented rooms in Building 606. No one told them that their new office stood on the site of a former contaminated laundry facility. Instead, officials dismissed the officers’ concerns as paranoid, until the police developed rashes and cancerous lumps. So how did these toxins get here?

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 “a giant and unprecedented spectacle,” 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 “target” 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 scale of destruction surprised the military. After the tests, the military didn’t know how to clean the ships of radiation, so they brought them to Hunters Point for decontamination and built the radioactive laundry to clean sailors’ clothing.

The 1940s and ’50s were a more lenient era, safetywise. Navy records describe the shipyard’s first radiological safety section as a “small band” of junior officers with equipment consisting “of one coffee pot and six Geiger counters, only two of which worked.” 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 “radionuclides of concern,” 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.

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