Lennar sued over toxic levels
Lance Williams and Robert Selna, Chronicle Staff Writers
Sunday, March 18, 2007
A development firm building 1,600 new homes at the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has allowed clouds of toxic construction dust to escape from the site, exposing neighbors and schoolchildren to potentially harmful, airborne asbestos, two company executives say.
Lennar Corp., which is Mayor Gavin Newsom's choice to take over the environmental cleanup of the entire former San Francisco naval base as part of a plan to build a new 49ers football stadium, imposed a "code of silence" last year to prevent workers from reporting violations of state and city clean-air rules, contended Gary McIntyre, Lennar's project manager, and Clementine Clarke, the company's community liaison.
McIntyre, Clarke and Ceola Richardson, an administrative assistant for the company, filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday claiming Lennar violated state law by retaliating against them for raising questions about the dust problems at the construction site. They also claim that they were victims of racial discrimination in the workplace. They are seeking unspecified financial damages.
McIntyre said Lennar demoted him because he complained about the company's failure to control dust during earth-moving at a 40-acre base site. Clarke, a San Francisco fire commissioner, said that when she expressed concern about asbestos dust, Lennar retaliated by giving her a poor job-performance review.
Lennar spokesman Sam Singer called the allegations in the lawsuit untrue, saying the company has gone to "great lengths" to protect public health. An official with the city health department said construction dust at Hunters Point doesn't pose a risk to nearby residents because proper safeguards are in place.
Miami-based Lennar is a Fortune 500 company that has won public contracts to redevelop shuttered military bases at Hunters Point, Treasure Island in San Francisco and Mare Island in Vallejo. In February, the mayor proposed putting Lennar in charge of the multimillion dollar cleanup of the whole shipyard to expedite building a new football stadium there.
The former shipyard is prime real estate, but is listed as a Superfund site because of massive toxic contamination, a legacy of its long history as a Navy base. Asbestos is an additional concern because veins of the fibrous mineral are naturally present in the bedrock at the site. Inhaling dust-borne asbestos fibers can cause lung cancer and other medical problems.
In their lawsuit, the executives said that after heavy grading of the site began in the spring of 2006, Lennar refused to shut down work, even when monitoring devices showed the asbestos content of construction dust was more than triple the state allowance.
At other times, monitoring equipment wasn't functioning properly, and the company had no idea whether it was in compliance or not, the lawsuit said.
Often the dust descended upon nearby homes and a small private school, the Muhammad University of Islam, operated by the Nation of Islam, the lawsuit said.
The executives' lawyer, Angela Alioto, a former president of the Board of Supervisors, accused Lennar of "environmental racism," saying the firm thought it would escape responsibility for pollution problems because the neighbors included poor people and members of racial minorities.
McIntyre is a veteran construction executive who says he was hired in 2004 to supervise Lennar's Hunters Point project. Clarke is a public relations specialist and political fundraiser whom Newsom appointed to the Fire Commission in 2004. She went to work as Lennar's community benefits manager at Hunters Point last year.
Racial insensitivity alleged
McIntyre, Clarke and Richardson are African American, and they also accused Lennar officials of insensitivity in their dealings with black employees, subcontractors and community residents.
In November, when Nation of Islam minister Christopher Muhammad complained to the Redevelopment Agency about dust problems at the school, Lennar Vice President Paul Menaker privately dismissed the concerns, calling Muhammad a "shakedown artist," the lawsuit says.
The following month, the suit says, Menaker sought to fire several African American workers assigned to monitor dust levels.
Amy Brownell, an environmental engineer with the city health department, said Lennar was cited three times by the city in 2006 for dust problems. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District cited Lennar last year because of a breakdown of the site's asbestos monitoring equipment, city records show.
Neighbors, including the school, have repeatedly complained to the city about dust and asbestos, Brownell said, but the city does not believe there is a health risk.
Lennar's "asbestos dust mitigation plans are adequate, and do protect the health of everyone, including the students, even given the problem they have with their dust control," she said.
The Navy closed Hunters Point shipyard in 1974. Converting the base to civilian use was delayed because the land was contaminated with everything from lead paint to radioactive material. In 1999, Lennar won a contract from the Redevelopment Agency to build on the 500-acre base once the environmental cleanup was complete.
Although the Navy has spent more than $500 million on the effort, so far only one parcel -- the 40-acre site where the 1,600 homes are under construction -- has been certified as clean enough to build on. The Navy said the cleanup is likely to take another 10 years and cost $500 million more.
In December, in an effort to dissuade the 49ers from moving from Monster Park to a proposed new stadium in Santa Clara, Newsom and Lennar invited the team to build a stadium at the shipyard instead.
Last month the mayor's office told the Navy that it wanted to speed the cleanup of the shipyard by turning the job over to Lennar, partly in hopes of expediting the football stadium plan.
Before homebuilding began in 2005, Lennar hired a subcontractor, Gordon N. Ball Inc., to grade the hillside site, and the environmental firm CH2M Hill to monitor asbestos levels in the dust. Lennar is supposed to spray the site with water to cut dust. If asbestos reached unsafe levels, Lennar was supposed to shut down excavation until dust subsided.
According to the lawsuit, dust problems -- and community complaints -- began when heavy grading work got under way last spring. Lennar failed to water the construction site adequately or sweep the roads to cut down on dust, the suit says.
On at least 15 occasions, the company halted work because of dust, the suit says, but there were many other days when work continued despite serious dust problems, the suit says.
At a meeting in August, Menaker, the Lennar vice president, told McIntyre and Clarke that the project's asbestos monitoring equipment had been malfunctioning for months, the suit says. When McIntyre and Clarke expressed concern about the risk of asbestos contamination, Menaker allegedly admonished them to maintain a "code of silence" about the issue.