The seas around San Francisco are expected to rise seven feet by 2100, and 1.5 to 3.5 feet as soon as 2040. And, while city planners and engineers are drawing up strategies to stave off the worst of sea-level rise, one neighborhood is being left out: Bayview Hunters Point.
The Embarcadero Seawall, built on the marshy banks of the city between 1879 and 1916, is one of many projects for which the Port of San Francisco is fundraising to stave off rising tides. But it needs major rehabilitation: The three-mile-long rock-and-concrete shelf dug into the “soft mud” of the bay, which stretches from Fisherman’s Wharf in District 3 to Heron’s Head Park in District 10, is unlikely to withstand another earthquake, and is in “desperate need of repair,” according to the Port.
In 2018, San Francisco voters approved $425 million in bonds to fund seawall and other infrastructure repairs, the tip of the iceberg for the estimated $5 billion project.
Repairs aside, the seawall itself ends, glaringly, right where Bayview Hunters Point begins. And there’s no intention to extend it. All sea level rise mitigation schemes drawn up by the Port and City of San Francisco exclude the city’s southeast.
“Their plan cuts off at Bayview. That’s concerning to me. If you’re going to build a seawall to protect downtown, what about where all the toxic soil is?” asked Arieann Harrison, a lifelong District 10 resident and founder of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation.
Much of the District 10 shoreline is landfill. Some 866 acres of that is the Hunters Point Shipyard, where a layer of “clean” dirt covers soil packed with radioactive waste from the Navy’s operations at the site, from World War II through the 1970s. These operations included radiating animals to test weapons (and then burying them in the ground), “decontaminating” ships used in atomic bomb testing, and extensive “radiological” research.
The Navy’s list of chemicals “of concern” present at the shipyard includes strontium-90, plutonium and uranium. Any rising tide will push these highly toxic chemicals hiding beneath the surface upward, into the streets, playgrounds and homes of 94124, and threaten 36,000 residents, mostly people of color.
“People don’t have a sense of urgency,” said Harrison. They always want “objective” studies, reports, committees, subcommittees — when people’s lives are at risk right now.
At an April community budget town hall, called by District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton following the announcement of San Francisco’s $780 million deficit, many of the 30 or so residents in attendance rang alarms about the seawall, among other environmental issues.
Michelle Pierce, a 40-plus year resident of Bayview Hunters Point and executive director of Bayview Hunters Point Advocates, referenced a meeting with the Port where a representative stated that “nobody lives over there” — about her neighborhood.
“For a long time, there was a claim that there was no risk of flooding here,” said Pierce. “And the plan is still to pretend like we don’t need a seawall.”
The city-drawn proposals leave some 36,000 people in the 94124 zip code vulnerable to highly toxic rising waters in one of the most flood-prone areas of the city, according to the discussions in a June, 2022, Civil Grand Jury report. In Bayview, the coast’s original wetlands and rivers have been buried by development — meaning, without mitigation measures, streets and homes will likely be flooded as the ocean creeps up. Flooding from rain this March, likely a mix of rainwater and groundwater seeping up from porous landfill, still blocks roadways right next to housing and RV sites by Candlestick Point.
Groundwater is a particular concern for Bayview, detailed the Civil Grand Jury report. Blocks of homes and industry in the neighborhood are sitting only a few feet up from the shallow groundwater table.
“The intersection of rising groundwater and buried contaminants poses a credible risk to human health and well-being,” states the report. “Given the rapidity with which the climate is changing, the City needs to take immediate and sustained action to protect its residents.”
But, according to Supervisor Walton and community members, action from the city has been negligible.
“We all know that the current plans for the seawall and addressing sea-level rise doesn’t include the southeast sector of the city,” said Walton. “This is a prime example of the inequities and policies that continue to isolate communities in San Francisco.”
According to the 2021 census, a majority of the 36,000 people living in the 94124 zip code are Asian (36 percent), Black (28 percent) or Hispanic (24 percent), with a median household income of $66,618. The median income of San Francisco is $138,550 for a family of four.
“If you want a diagram of what a racist city would do,” said Tony Kelly, a two-time candidate for District 10 supe and the development director at Bayview Hunters Point Advocates, “this is it.”
The big question of who is responsible for the toxic waste in the area has stalled any progress toward a solution. Between the Navy, which owns the most contaminated land at the Shipyard and is responsible for its cleanup, and the city, which is set to acquire the land after said cleanup, nobody is stepping up to take the lead.
In 2017, it came to light that Tetra Tech, the agency contracted by the Navy to test shipyard soil for chemicals and establish a timeline for decontaminating the land, falsified soil samples to speed along transfer of shipyard property to the city, ultimately for housing development. In 2018, Two Tetra Tech employees were charged with fraud.
Despite the arrests, Tetra Tech remains the main contractor responsible for soil remediation at both the Hunters Point and Treasure Island Superfund sites.
Harrison and other representatives from local organizations often find themselves invited to meetings with various city departments but, in her experience, “it’s to show inclusivity, while we’re not included in the process.”
“It’s a never-ending sea of trying to figure out who the players are,” she continued. “But we need answers. There needs to be a plan for Bayview.” With climate change accelerating, it makes no sense to keep postponing a solution, she said.
This Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, organizations around the Bay will be mobilizing to continue to urge leaders to take action sooner and not later. In Bayview, several local environmental justice organizations are holding a Peace Walk and Environmental Justice Rally from noon to 3 p.m.. People will gather at Bayview Plaza at Evans and Third streets, and march up to the Opera House at Third and Newcomb streets to urge leaders to take action now on environmental justice. To get involved, reach out to Arieann Harrison at email@example.com.