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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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News + PoliticsSF moved people onto Treasure Island despite serious toxic dangers

SF moved people onto Treasure Island despite serious toxic dangers

Navy and its contractors gave inaccurate info on chemicals and radiation as development of housing moved forward, data at hearing shows.


For more than ten years, the US Navy provided inaccurate, incomplete or false data on the risks of chemical and radiological contamination at Treasure Island – while the city was moving more than 1,000 mostly low-income people into housing on the island.

That’s what a state official testified today in what Sup. Aaron Peskin called profound information. “You are the first person in a decade and a half to tell the truth,” Peskin said to Anthony Chu, the director of radiation safety at the state Department of Public Health.

A radioactive site just yards from housing.

Chu testified that during the period when the city was moving rapidly to develop the island, data on the health risks to the residents was completely unreliable.

Although he said things have improved, his testimony suggested that the city allowed people to live in a place where highly toxic materials were prevalent and had not been cleaned up.

That was just one of the stunning revelations of the Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing today, called by Sup. Matt Haney.

Among other things, we learned that:

  • A significant part of the island is still contaminated with potentially dangerous level of radioactive material – but that the state thinks it’s fine because those areas are fenced off and signs are posted. In some cases, the toxic space is only a few yards from existing housing.
  • Residents of the island have reported a long list of health impacts, including radiation burns, sores, birth defects, and other issues – and nobody at the city, state, or federal level is responsible for tracking those cases.
  • The entire structure of the agency that manages Treasure Island is set up to avoid accountability and promote private development.

Bradley Angel, director of the environmental group Greenaction, out forward some astonishing data. The island was designated as so polluted that it could have been a federal EPA Superfund site, but that designation never went forward.

He showed slides depicting radioactive sites just yards from low-income housing.

He pointed out that reporting by Carol Harvey has shown a long list of potential problems at the site.

Julia Pettijohn, environmental program manager for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said that the island residents are more vulnerable to environmental health issues than 85 percent of the census tracts in the state.

The Navy – and the city – has said it is safe for people to live on the island. But Haney pointed out that “we have never done a comprehensive analysis of those health impacts or their connection to contamination.”

“It sounds like nobody is taking responsibility for this particular role,
 he said. “When it comes to Treasure Island, it seems like everybody says this is not my responsibility.”

The island is within the jurisdiction of the City of San Francisco, although it was a former Navy base.

Starting in 1997, after the Navy decided to abandon the facility, then-Mayor Willie Brown began looking for ways to turn it into a special agency that he would control. The state Legislature approved a plan by then-Assemblymember Carole Migden that would create a Treasure Island Development Authority – a sort of super redevelopment agency – entirely controlled by the mayor:

Articles of incorporation for the Treasure Island Development Authority listed the San Francisco mayor as the “sole incorporator.” Directors would be named by the mayor “in order to perfect the organization of the Authority.” City and state conflict of-interest laws forbidding city employees to hold dual offices were waived, making it possible for Brown to pack the authority’s board.

Allies of Brown and then Gavin Newsom got the lucrative contracts to build housing on the island.

The Navy hired the same contractor that faced serious charges at Hunters Point to determine if there were toxics on the site and oversee remediation.

The outcome, the supes said, hasn’t been good.

“We have put this population that is already vulnerable and put them in a place where the environment makes them even more vulnerable,” Sup Myrna Melgar said.

Patrick Fosdahl, environmental officer at the city’s Department of Public Health, said that “what has happened in the past is things we all can learn from.” He said that many agencies are involved in the discussion of housing development at Treasure Island, and “historically, health might not have been a part of that conversation.”

But under questioning from Melgar, Peskin, Haney, and Dean Preston, it became clear that nobody at any level has paid any attention to the epidemiological issues that residents of the island have reported.

Peskin noted that one of the major issues is that the TIDA board is appointed entirely by the mayor and there is no oversight at all. He said that he would work with Haney to reform the governance system.

In the meantime, there are people living on the island, very close to very dangerous stuff. The state officials said that the fences and signs blocking off places where radioactive materials have been found are good enough – but there are kids on the island.

Kids don’t always read signs and pay attention to fences.

The supes are going to have to take this problem on – since nobody else seems willing to do it.

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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  1. Across the Bay in Richmond we’re facing a similar environmental justice disaster: last year’s lame-duck city council rushed through an approval to build a mega-development on the AstraZeneca former toxic waste dump without a full remediation. The toxic soup of more than 100 chemicals buried at the Astra-Zeneca site contains known carcinogens whose effects may not show up for ten to 30 years. It’s just insane to pave over these sites next to the Bay and then build housing, particularly affordable housing, especially when sea-level rise will bring these dangerous poisons to the surface. A cleaned-up site would be worth billions. Richmond is getting cheated for AstraZeneca’s bottom line and the developer’s profits.

  2. It is a shame that San Francisco did not build more high density housing that these people could live in. But no, they shot down SB50 and every other effort to increase housing. Where will the people living here go?

  3. At least someone is finally taking the problem seriously. That is what the residents have been asking for. Watching the fine use of he artful dodge by health officials is the most concerning since they use the same language for everyone all the time. We must become much more legally correct when we ask our simple questions, such as “is there an immediate danger?” Immediate means, will i get sick or die within the next 30 minutes, not, am I likely to get sick or die after constant exposure over a long period of time. We also heard that where the soil is covered and the contaminants are sealed the areas are safe. What happens when the seals are broken by the constant shifting of the earth and soil erosion or sea water rise?

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