SAN FRANCISCO — After nearly four weeks of effort by two fire departments, an underground hazardous waste landfill fire still smolders at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
But what has the Environmental Protection Agency up in arms is that the Navy took three of those weeks to tell anyone about it.
In a letter sent Monday to naval officials and local politicians, the EPA admonished the Navy for failing to alert the agency, local officials and neighbors of the Superfund site about the fire and the possible hazardous situations it may have created.
“Only after the EPA’s request did the Navy release a fact sheet to the public and install air monitoring stations to determine the impact of the fire on nearby residents,” wrote Daniel Meer, chief of the Superfund Division of the EPA’s Federal Facilities Cleanup Branch.
The letter went on to criticize the Navy’s decision to stop stationing federal fire fighters at the site while the fire continues to burn. The EPA says the Navy has since reversed its plan.
Results from soil, water and air samples submitted by the Navy to a laboratory are expected back this week to determine whether neighbors could have been harmed by smoke which took on yellow and green hues over the weeks.
The fire smolders on though it no longer produces much visible smoke, says Jeannie Light, a Navy spokeswoman based in San Diego.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The EPA doubts Hunters Point neighbors are in any danger, but isn’t taking any chances.
“We don’t believe there’s any risk to people out there, but it’s nice to have the monitoring up just to make sure there aren’t any emissions coming from the landfill,” said Sheryl Lauth, Hunters Point project manager for the EPA.
The fire has burned since Aug. 16 at the shipyard, near a section where the city hopes to build new homes and businesses after the site is cleansed of toxic wastes.
Heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and other industrial wastes are imbedded over the 46-acre landfill.
Lauth says it’s hard to tell how long the fire could burn until a landfill expert the Navy plans to send to the site later this week can figure out what’s actually burning.
The Navy issued a news release Friday which detailed the efforts of both the Federal and San Francisco fire departments to put out the fire.
But the methods used – including flooding the area with water and bulldozing and shoveling out hotspots – have thus far left the fire unbeaten.
Alex Lantsberg, program coordinator of environmental group Arc Ecology, which was a party in a lawsuit against the Navy earlier this year, says the EPA needs to beef up its oversight of the Navy’s cleanup efforts.
EPA is a partner in the cleanup effort, though it lacks legal power to discipline the Navy.
“I think a lot of people are wondering whether the EPA is a watchdog or a lapdog,” said Lantsberg who is also a member of the Community First Coalition, a coalition of Bay View and Hunters Point residents and environmental groups who demand the immediate cleanup of the Superfund site.
Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was closed in 1974 and comprises 500 dry acres and 440 submerged acres within San Francisco’s Bay View and Hunters Point neighborhoods.