SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. government will prosecute three whistleblower complaints against a U.S. Navy contractor accused of widespread fraud in the $1 billion cleanup of a radiation-contaminated shipyard and site of a major redevelopment project.
Seven whistleblowers have accused the contractor Tetra Tech of falsifying soil tests that were supposed to verify the decontamination of a 400-acre site where more than 10,000 homes are slated to be built in one of the largest redevelopment projects in San Francisco history.
“It was of critical importance to the United States Navy, and the public, that Tetra Tech perform accurately and fully the radiological testing and remediation at the Hunters Point site for which it was hired,” Assistant Attorney General Joseph Hunt said in a statement Friday. “The Department of Justice will vigorously pursue action against those who obtain federal funds based on promises they knowingly fail to keep.”
Tetra Tech was paid more than $250 million in contracts for its work on the Hunters Point project from 2006 to 2012, according to the U.S. Navy.
The Pasadena, California-based contractor says the fraudulent conduct was limited to a few rogue employees, and that the whistleblowers, who would receive a portion of any damages award, are motivated by greed.
“We will vigorously defend our record, and are confident we will prevail following an impartial legal and scientific review of the facts,” Tetra Tech spokesman Sam Singer said in a statement.
The former Navy shipyard in the city’s Bayview neighborhood was once home to top-secret nuclear tests from 1946 to 1969 and a place where ships returning from hydrogen bomb tests were decontaminated, both potential sources of radioactive waste.
In their complaints, the whistleblowers claim a Tetra Tech manager ordered workers to destroy lab results for post-cleanup soil samples that “had some of the highest radioactive readings that had ever been obtained at Hunters Point.” The workers were ordered to take samples from other areas and avoid “radioactive hot spots,” according to the complaints.
The lawsuits also claim Tetra Tech and its subcontractors hired unqualified workers and improperly disposed of hazardous materials, among other allegations.
Two former Tetra Tech employees, who oversaw testing of the contaminated soil, pleaded guilty to falsifying reports and were each sentenced to eight months in prison in December and May.
A December 2017 audit by the Environmental Protection Agency found that 90 to 97 percent of soil samples in two areas of the site were potentially compromised or intentionally falsified.
The California Department of Public Health is currently re-testing two areas of the site for radiation using above-ground gamma ray scans. The state will not retest soil samples because the area is “mostly developed and covered with concrete, asphalt, or landscaping soil” that was added after the cleanup. If the gamma scans turn up evidence of radiation, the state says it will conduct further tests, which could include soil samples.
The U.S. Navy is paying for the re-testing of Parcels A-1 and A-2 at Hunters Point. No cost estimate for the re-testing has been supplied, despite multiple requests for that information.
In June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved moving forward with plans to build more than 10,000 homes on the 400-acre site, despite concerns about potential contamination.
San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview neighborhood where the project is located, assured residents in June that no construction would take place until the site was fully cleared by new independent tests.
Under Phase 1 of the Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment plan, 309 homes were already constructed in the area slated for re-testing.
The recently approved Phase 2 plan, designed by private developer FivePoint, includes 10,672 new housing units with 32 percent affordable homes, a 120-room hotel, 300 acres of waterfront parks, and 58 acres of commercial space. The project encompasses the former Hunters Point Shipyard and nearby Candlestick Point, site of the former San Francisco 49ers stadium.
Tetra Tech is facing five federal lawsuits over its alleged role in the environmental fraud conspiracy. The developer FivePoint is named as a defendant in four of those suits.