May 15, 2023 - Climate

Flooding could threaten hazardous sites in San Francisco Bay Area

The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco was once home to the Navy’s radiological defense laboratory. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Hundreds of industrial sites along California's coastline may face a heightened risk of coastal flooding by 2050 because of sea level rise from human-caused global warming, a recent study says.

Why it matters: Flood and storm surge events amplified by sea level rise against such facilities could increase the chances of hazardous chemicals escaping from the sites and contaminating nearby communities.

  • The potential release of contaminants from future extreme weather events may also have an increased effect on people of color and low-income communities.
  • That's because those communities are more likely to live near industrial and hazardous waste sites, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology this month.

By the numbers: If greenhouse gas emissions rise but peak around 2040 and fall, the researchers estimated that at least 125 possibly hazardous industrial sites along California's coast would be at risk of extreme flooding events by 2050, according to the study.

The big picture: According to the study, highly industrialized coastlines within the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles-Long Beach region would have the greatest number of at-risk sites.

  • Less severe flooding caused by sea level rise would also increase the risk of flood-induced contamination by contributing to the corrosion of pipelines and other infrastructure.

Between the lines: A civil grand jury report last June identified rising sea levels as a potential environmental risk to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, once home to the Navy's radiological defense laboratory. The site is heavily polluted with heavy metals, radioactive substances and other contaminants, according to the report.

  • The shipyard is located in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, which is more than 25% Black, the largest population of Black people in the city, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the San Francisco Standard.
  • The Navy and the Environmental Protection Agency have been working to clean up the shipyard for decades, but the grand jury determined the Navy and the EPA have not taken into account the risks of rising groundwater.
  • In response to the report, San Francisco District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton demanded a full cleanup of the area, saying the city would not take ownership of the land — for the purposes of a planned housing development — without it, the San Francisco Examiner reports.

What they're saying: Lead author Lara Cushing, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, said she and her fellow researchers believe these estimates are the first of their kind for California.

What's next: Cushing said she and her fellow researcher are expanding their efforts to a nationwide analysis and expects to publish preliminary results by the end of the year.

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