A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Soil Remediation and Sea Level Rise in San Francisco

Lindsey Dillon, University of California, Davis


In my research on industrial ecologies in southeast San Francisco, I’ve become fascinated with the logic of risk-based soil remediation (which is the technical term for cleanup; in practice the two terms are used interchangeably). A risk-based framework has guided the remediation of toxic waste sites in the US since the 1990s, and this includes a current military base-reuse project at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in southeast San Francisco, which I have followed closely for several years.

The goal of risk-based remediation is not the complete removal of subsurface contaminants (although soil remediation to “background” pollution levels had been the original goal of the Superfund Act in the US, passed in 1980). Rather, risk-based remediation leaves contaminants in the subsoil, and seeks manage their potential exposure pathways (with humans). This proper arrangement of people and things is achieved through a combination of engineering controls (walls, liners, or asphalt parking lots) and institutional controls (such land use restrictions and continued monitoring). In other words, industrial cleanup is always a partial, ongoing, and fragile project, requiring continuous monitoring, maintenance, and repair.

The Hunters Point Shipyard in southeast San Francisco is surrounded by the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a place where over a century of industrial land use has left a stew of the 19th and 20th century’s most toxic materials. Industrial soil remediation at shipyard produces the grounds for a large urban redevelopment project, with over 10,000 housing units, offices, and waterfront parks. To sell its homes, the development company relies heavily on ideas of sustainability and urban greening – for example, advertising the project as “sustainable living in the 21st century” and landscaping with native plants.

Although soil remediation and green redevelopment might appear as victories for environmental justice activism in Bayview-Hunters Point, many residents find themselves in opposition to the shipyard project, and situate it within history of racism in the city. This is not only for reasons of gentrification and economic displacement, but because of new toxic encounters produced through industrial cleanup. For example, residents in public housing units near the Hunters Point Shipyard have lived with and protested against the demolition and construction dusts of multiple remediation and redevelopment projects for almost a decade. This is another example of how remediation is not really an ecologically restorative project (as it is often understood), but a productive project – in this case, producing new geographies of industrial waste, or new toxic entanglements.

The Navy’s risk-based remediation project at the Hunters Point Shipyard will leave a 22-acre landfill in place, attempting to manage potential exposure pathways through several synthetic liners and soil layers, and through land use restrictions, such as prohibitions on planting fruits or vegetables for consumption and the reuse of this particular area of the shipyard for anything other than a park. Chemical analyses of the landfill and the surrounding area have found the presence of heavy metals, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides, PCBs, petroleum, cesium-137, radium-226, and cobalt-60 in the ground.

I’ve followed this project for years, and the hubris of it has never ceased to amaze me. Risk-based remediation strategies are threatened by so many factors, including the material decay of landfill covers, earthquakes, and human memory (will people in one hundred years remember that they should not plant a garden?). What I’d like to focus on here is how the already-vulnerable remediation project is threatened by sea level rise. I’ve provided an image from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Level Rise Viewer (, showing an estimated 3 feet (36 inches) of sea level rise in southeast San Francisco (the big paw extending into the San Francisco Bay is the shipyard). Areas of inundation in the southern part of the base are close to the landfill site. Current science estimates sea level in the San Francisco Bay Area to rise 11-19 inches by 2050, and 20-55 inches by 2100. Rising tides threaten to release subterranean contaminants, even after the shipyard is officially designated “clean” by state environmental agencies. I am thinking about the relationship between weather events, weathering and chemical toxicity as a kind of “double exposure” (see keyword, “exposure”).

Three feet of sea level rise in Bayview-Hunters Point (NOAA 2014) The shipyard is only one place in Bayview-Hunters Point threatened by sea level rise. Nearby is the Southeast Sewage Treatment Plant (which processes 80% of the city’s waste), a large waste transfer station, numerous hazardous waste industries, and hundreds of underground hazardous waste sites (such as leaking underground fuel tanks, sites of recorded industrial spills and illegal dumping).


Exposure: a vulnerability to weather, as in, “she was exposed to the elements”, or “he suffered from exposure” (1).

Through this keyword I want to explore the ways climate changes will affect the distribution and toxicity of chemicals, or how weather and weathering in the Anthropocene is related to new forms of toxic exposure. According to recent scientific studies, higher global temperatures will alter the chemical structure of some contaminants, influencing the ways they travel through ecological systems (Schiedek et al 2007). Increased ocean salinity may release metals currently bound within in ocean sediments, likewise increasing bioavailability (Roberts et al 2012). Drier seasons in some regions may lead to a greater volatility of pesticides and persistent organic pollutants in the atmosphere (Noyes et al 2009). Wang et al 2010 posit a turning point at which “biogeochemical processes emerge as the major driver for bioaccumulation”. What these studies describe is something I am calling “double exposure”, in which “exposure to the elements” is also a form of toxic exposure. Double exposure describes a specific material relationship, or a toxic entanglement, that takes place through weather and geological processes.

What interests me most at the moment are the effects of sea level rise and storm-related events (such as floods, high tides, erosion) on industrial chemicals buried underground in landfills and other hazardous waste sites in coastal cities and small islands. The impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in the US northeast is instructive. Sandy’s storms dislodged 378,00 gallons of fuel from the Motiva oil tank facility in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, most of which spilled into a nearby waterway. Lead, arsenic, and copper were also released from the Raritan Bay Slag Superfund site (leading to an EPA warning against people using a public playground and a beach in the area) (Navarro 2012). In this sense, Hurricane Sandy had the effect of producing new toxic encounters between living beings and industrial contaminants. While I don’t think engineers can completely safeguard against these kinds of toxic disasters, I also think it’s important to point out that the specific weather events (and weathering processes) related to climate change are not considered in the design of most landfills or industrial remediation projects (Kuh 2012).

Public policy and reduced industrial emissions would remain important ethical responses to this situation, but human policies cannot regulate earth processes (see Wang et al 2010). As an unavoidable materiality of climate change, the time of toxic weathering may be in the centuries. Addressing these environmental health effects of climate change should (I think) include a theory of intergenerational and multi-species justice (I have unfortunately only focused on human-contaminant exposures). I also wonder whether thinking about the relationship between geology, weather events and chemical toxicities might engage with some notion of shelter, as in Bob Dylan’s song, “shelter from the storm”.


Kuh, Katrina Fischer. "Climate Change and CERCLA Remedies: Adaptation Strategies for Contaminated Sediment Sites." Seattle Journal of Environmental Law 2 (2012): 61.

Navarro, Mireya. “As Floods Recede, Superfund Neighborhoods Fear Contamination”.  New York Times, November 13, 2012. (Also see <>

Noyes, Pamela D., Matthew K. McElwee, Hilary D. Miller, Bryan W. Clark, Lindsey A. Van Tiem, Kia C. Walcott, Kyle N. Erwin, and Edward D. Levin. "The toxicology of climate change: environmental contaminants in a warming world." Environment international 35, no. 6 (2009): 971-986.

Roberts, David A., Silvana NR Birchenough, Ceri Lewis, Matthew B. Sanders, Thi Bolam, and Dave Sheahan. "Ocean acidification increases the toxicity of contaminated sediments." Global change biology 19, no. 2 (2013): 340-351.

Schiedek, Doris, Brita Sundelin, James W. Readman, and Robie W. Macdonald. "Interactions between climate change and contaminants." Marine pollution bulletin 54, no. 12 (2007): 1845-1856

Wang, Feiyue, Robie W. Macdonald, Gary A. Stern, and Peter M. Outridge. "When noise becomes the signal: Chemical contamination of aquatic ecosystems under a changing climate." Marine pollution bulletin 60, no. 10 (2010): 1633-1635.

(1) Exposure, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, definition 3b: “the position (as of a house) with respect to weather influences or compass points; Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3: “The manner or degree in which anything is exposed; esp. situation with respect to sun as wind; ‘aspect’ with regard to the quarter of the heavens”.