Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Dump

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you may be surprised to learn that "more than 47,800 drums and other containers of low-level radioactive waste were dumped onto the ocean floor west of San Francisco between 1946 and 1970." (Source: The U.S. Geological Survey, a bureau of the Department of the Interior.)

Just 25 to 30 miles offshore from the Golden Gate bridge -- in a marine wildlife sanctuary, no less -- the ocean floor is littered with rusting 55-gallon barrels of radioactive waste. The U.S. Navy shipped this toxic cargo from the Radiological Defense Laboratory at the Hunters Point shipyard in San Francisco and dropped it in the sea near the Farallon Islands -- creating the first and largest offshore nuclear waste dump in the United States. Navy gunners were instructed to shoot holes in the barrels that didn't sink right away.

Here's an interactive map of the waste dump site, provided by the Center for Land Use Interpretation:

Nearly 50,000 drums of nuclear waste sounds bad enough, but the ocean floor around the Farallon Islands is host to even more toxic garbage: Namely, the radioactive wreck of a ten-thousand-ton aircraft carrier, used as a nuke target during the 1946 Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests.

Eager to learn what might happen to a warship when an atomic bomb explodes nearby, the U.S. Navy placed the USS Independence within one-half mile of ground zero during the "Able" atomic bomb test of July 1, 1946. This was the first of two atomic bomb tests conducted on the Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroads:

Highly radioactive but still afloat after the blast, the bombed-out hulk was then towed to San Francisco's Hunters Point shipyard for decontamination experiments.

After five years of fruitless sandblasting, the Navy lost interest in the useless wreck. In 1951, the Independence was towed out of the bay and sunk near the Farallon Islands as just another (albeit quite large) chunk of radioactive waste.

The California State Lands Commission shipwreck database pinpoints the exact location of the radioactive shipwreck of the USS Independence as: Latitude 37deg 28'24'N, Longitude 123deg 07'36'W. This interactive map shows the position of those coordinates:

Lisa Davis, a reporter for the SF Weekly, broke this story with an excellent investigative piece in 2001. The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the thread in 2005. Curiously, no other news organizations appear to be interested in covering this story -- an omission that is especially startling in light of the fact that nearby Marin County has an unexplained high incidence of breast cancer rates.