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News + PoliticsExposing the toxic crisis at Treasure Island

Exposing the toxic crisis at Treasure Island

Plus: Will the Police Commission finally pass reforms -- and will it matter? That's The Agenda for Feb. 8-14


Let me start off this week with a correction. The Chron, along with almost every other news media outlet that is covering the Lowell High admissions issue, used language like this:

A controversial plan to eliminate the merit-based admissions policy at one of the top public high schools in the country sparked an emotional response Tuesday from both critics and supporters who pleaded with the San Francisco school board, which appeared set to pass it.

For the record: Lowell admissions has never been “merit-based.” It’s been test-based. Oh, and based on the grades students got in eighth grade, which nobody with any sense believes has any reflection on how a student will perform in high school and college.

You take a standardized test to get into Lowell. The scientific data is overwhelming: Standardized tests are racially and culturally biased, and have little correspondence to academic success. That’s why UC, along with more than 1,000 colleges in the country, has stopped using the SAT and the ACT.

Argue all you want about the best admissions process at Lowell, but let’s be honest and accurate here: The current system doesn’t measure “merit.”

I haven’t been out of the city for a while, for obvious reasons, but I took my dog for a hike this weekend out at Lake Chabot. We took largely empty trails, he played with his canine friends, and then we drove back to the city.

And on the Bay Bridge, I saw a construction crane and a big building under development, and a sign that said condos were now available – on Treasure Island.

A pretty picture of the future — except for what lies beneath.

That’s part of the city’s plan to put 8,000 housing units on the former site of the 1938 exposition – and a longtime former Navy base.

I have always wondered if the place is safe; it’s made of loose fill, basically bay mud and sand dumped into a shallow area surrounded by rocks. It’s not far above sea level, and as the water rises, the place faces some serious problems.

But there’s a much bigger issue: The Navy, like every branch of the military, has a horrible record leaving highly toxic waste behind when it abandons its bases. And Treasure Island is no exception.

An investigation by Reuters in 2019 presents horrifying data:

To date, the Navy’s $285.1 million Treasure Island cleanup has unearthed concentrations of lead, dioxins, petroleum and more than 1,000 radioactive items. Among other activities, the Navy had used the island to repair ships with deck markers painted with radium.

The upshot, public health specialists say, is that the Navy unnecessarily exposed families to radioactive and toxic materials for decades. Since the military pulled out, the island has become home to some 1,800 people, many living in subsidized housing.

“They never should have allowed anyone to live there,” said health physicist Gaetano Taibi, a radiation safety officer on Treasure Island before joining California’s Department of Public Health.

There’s more. The dirt contains radioactive material. The Navy keeps denying that there’s a problem. And the city’s development partners want to build it out so they can make money.

(The whole plan never made a lot of sense to me. There’s no way to get that many people on and off the island on a regular basis; the only way out by car or Muni is to merge suddenly, from a full stop, into fast-moving traffic on the bridge. Ferry service robust enough to handle more than 15,000 residents would be expensive – and who’s going to pay for it? Unless you can make the place pretty self-sufficient, it’s going to be a transportation mess. I don’t even think delivery drivers – and the world is now about deliveries – can safely make it on and off the island. Much less the semi-trucks that would have to serve a grocery store.)

But that’s not the big point here.

The place, the evidence suggests, is far from safe for human habitation.

Of course, the Navy says that the toxics aren’t that much of a problem. That’s always the way it is with polluters. It’s hard to prove that any individual cancer, any individual health issue, is linked to any specific bit of dirt – but putting residents (particularly families) in a place where you can’t trust that the backyards and fields are safe is a problem.

All of  this will be discussed in public Monday/8 when the Board of Supes Land Use and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on the “past, current, and future clean-up” of the Island.

Sup. Matt Haney has asked the California Environmental Protection Agency, San Francisco Department of Public Health, Treasure Island Development Authority, and United States Department of the Navy to report.

The Navy has declined to show up.

The hearing starts at 1:30pm.

The Police Commission will consider Wednesday/10 a series of critical changes in policy – on transparency, discipline, and use of force – that have been delayed for more than a year by the Police Officers Association.

The POA had demanded that the department “meet and confer” on rules that the commission ought to be able to implement on its own.

But after that process, the commission will finally have the chance to decide whether to update the rules on weapons, comply with state law that requires some officer discipline records to be made public, and promote an effective community policing policy.

The rules are complicated, but you can read them all here.

The bigger problem is that the city historically has not held officers accountable for violating the rules. So sure, put better policies in place, in compliance with what the Obama-era Justice Department recommended more than five years ago. But it will mean little if the line supervisors don’t enforce the rules, and the chief and the commission don’t hold cops accountable when they break them.

As retired police accountability lawyer John Crew points out:

It’s been clear for years now that SF lacks the political will to do effective police reform on a voluntary basis.  The Biden DOJ would come to SF in a heartbeat to put SFPD under a pattern and practice consent decree to impose court oversight and deadlines to actually force actual, meaningful (rather than mostly performative) reforms if only SF officials — like their counterparts in other cities have done in the past — would only ask them.   

But they won’t… because while they’re all happy to condemn and wring their hands about SFPD’s implicit and explicit racism, outdated enforcement and management practices, lack of accountability and culture being so very bad that they produce hyper-extreme outcomes — year after year, decade after decade — in terms of racial disparities, they won’t actually do the necessary things that would bring those disparities down. 

The data showing racist policing in SF has become so normalized, so expected that it’s become — for all intents and purposes — perfectly acceptable in San Francisco. If de facto racist policing in SF wasn’t acceptable to the Board of Supervisors, City Attorney’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the Police Commission, they’d be acting far  more boldly and aggressively to stop it by now. 

What’s their explanation for why policing racial disparities that are bad in most of America are actually worse in SF than in more than 90percent  of their peer big city police departments? 

Check this out:

Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Milwaukee had some of the largest disparities in policing outcomes between Black and white residents. In these cities, Black residents were policed at high rates while white residents were policed at relatively low rates. Police arrested Black people at several times the rate of white people, even for offenses like drug possession which have been found to be committed at similar rates by Black and white communities. And police in these cities also killed Black people at substantially higher rates than white people, even after accounting for racial differences in arrest rates.

That’s what we’re dealing with here. And the folks running the department are not going to change, as Crew points out, unless the mayor and the supes and the city attorney make them.

One simple example: Under SB 1421, the department has to make public disciplinary records of cops involved in shootings. I have been trying to get the records of the officers who shot Alex Nieto for more than a year now. Every couple of weeks, I get another letter saying the department is too busy and will get back to me soon.

The new policy says the city has to comply with state law – but it’s not happening.

As Crew says, “Why in early Feb 2021 is an agency with all the money in the world still futzing about with SB 1421 protocols rather than actually producing the stuff in a timely basis they’ve been legally required to produce for a very, very long time now?  The answer is “nobody is making them.”

Oh and by the way: The city still doesn’t know if any members of the SFPD were in Washington DC during the Capitol Riot. Other departments have ordered their members to report their presence – and co-operate with the FBI (they are, after all, law-enforcement officers). Not this department.

 The meeting starts at 5:30pm.

Oakland’s Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force is looking for ways to shift some $150 million from the Police Department budget into community-based alternatives, and will be presenting a report to the City Council in April.

The taskforce seeks to “involve community stakeholders rooted in transparency and accountability including those who have not been included in the conversation” — particularly Black and Brown communities, who are often left out of the decision-making process around community safety. 

Policy Link is helping coordinate a community survey, and you can participate here:

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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