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News + PoliticsEnvironmentIs it safe? Treasure Island residents face health concerns from toxic dust

Is it safe? Treasure Island residents face health concerns from toxic dust

The dirt on the island was contaminated. Now it's flying around in the air.

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As a child in the late 1970s, Alexandria Rockett liked to visit Naval Station Treasure Island to help her father and uncle who worked at the local boiler plant that provided hot water to a laundry and dry cleaner.

At the time, the island served as a Naval academy, training service people in detecting radiation, repairing detection equipment, and decontaminating irradiated ships.

Alexandria Rockett sees dust from the construction sites all over her neighborhood. Photo by Garrett Leahy.

Rockett, a senior home-care nurse, moved to the island shortly after it was decommissioned in 1997, raising her sons now 32 and 16, not far from where her family worked. 

“I used to come here to work with my dad, go home with my uncle, and then my mom would pick me up,” Rockett said. “It was like a back-and-forth thing.”

Treasure Island, unlike other Naval facilities such as Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, was never designated by the federal government as a Superfund site, a program that funds the clean-up of toxic sites. 

However, Navy surveys found chemical and radiological toxics left in the soil after civilians had moved into former Naval housing. The Navy began cleaning leftover chemical and radiological waste, a process called “remediation,” in 1999 and continues to this day.

There are no studies correlating health risks with living on Treasure Island, but many residents said they know someone who has developed cancer while living there or even they themselves have respiratory issues.

“My dad and my uncle died from asbestos and cancer, which they got at the boiler plant,” Rockett said. “They were the only two out of 16 brothers and sisters by the same mom and dad that got cancer, the only two that went to the Navy and were stationed at Treasure Island.”

Now, Rockett finds herself in the same place as her other family who worked on the island–Rockett was diagnosed with cervical cancer in June, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Across from Rockett’s home, trucks cart loads of tainted dirt out of the last remaining toxic waste site, called the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area, and pass along her backyard fence on the way to out-of-state disposal sites. It’s the last site of five to be remediated in the decades-long process.

Rockett and her boys have regularly seen dust coming out of trucks leaving the site since its cleanup began in 2017.

“They put the tarps on [the trucks], but you can still see the dust seeping out the back,” Rockett said. “We’re all inhaling that.”

The Navy’s remediation of Treasure Island is years-along but much remains to be done, especially for the Westside SWDA, which even after months of dust-generating soil excavation does not yet have a full remediation plan approved. Once that plan is approved, there will be more digging, and potentially more dust.

“Certainly any additional work they do will entail excavation,” said Robert Beck, who heads the Treasure Island Development Authority, which is spearheading the development of thousands of new housing on the island.  “The work that’s been going on in the Westside SWDA to-date is a “non time-critical removal action…these kind of activities can take place even before you get to a feasibility study or a proposed plan.”

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former Treasure Island residents living near the SWDA found many felt under-informed by the Navy about the health risk of living on top of contaminated soil, and several residents refused to speak on the record, fearing they would be evicted or lose work on the island if they spoke out.

But the city’s responsibility over the island’s clean-up, from everything to informing residents to enforcing stricter dust abatement protocols is limited: The city does not own the inhabited area of Treasure Island, referred to as Site 12 by the Navy. The Navy still maintains ownership of that area of land, including the Westside SWDA, as it continues to be cleaned to the point that it can be safely transferred to San Francisco.

Much of Treasure Island’s history is intertwined with San Francisco as well as the military–including its creation.

Naval Station Treasure Island

The Army Corps of Engineers dredged up bay mud and sand mud onto the shoals of the naturally-occurring Yerba Buena Island between 1936 and 1937 to create the 400-acre “Magic Isle,” as it was called for the 1939 World Exposition, which was held there.

“They basically built a moat of rock around the perimeter and then they just filled it up with whatever crap they scraped off the bay bottom,” said Tom Parsons, a Berkeley-based expert in earthquake forecasting.

In 1941, the Navy took control of Magic Isle. At its height, Naval Station Treasure Island supported air operations, communications, and processed 12,000 sailors every day for assignments in the Pacific.

After the war, it transitioned into a Naval academy training sailors how to handle radioactive isotopes and clean radioactive waste.

A 2012 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that a common exercise for students involved spraying Cesium-137, which has a half-life of about 30 years, onto a concrete mock vessel dubbed the USS Pandemonium, which was then cleaned off by sailors. The drill was meant to teach them how to decontaminate irradiated ships in the event of a nuclear war. That same investigation found that the island’s soil contained Cesium-137. To dispose of radioactive waste, the Navy used sinks and pipes lined with lead.

Naval Station Treasure Island also salvaged and repaired Navy ships, including ships with deck markers coated with Radium-226 to make them glow in the dark, which have been found around the island. At least six ships that were irradiated at Bikini Atoll were docked at Treasure Island. 

“The number of chemicals at Treasure Island meet or exceed problems at Hunter’s Point, but people are living right on top of it at Treasure Island,” said David Anton, an attorney who has represented contractors who blew the whistle about clean-up issues at former Naval sites around the Bay.

In September 1997, the Navy lowered the American flag at Treasure Island, and its days as a Naval base were over. That same year, city agencies, including the newly formed Treasure Island Development Authority, ushered in the transition from Naval base to civilian housing.

They designated more than 300 repurposed former Navy housing units and several businesses to be run by an assortment of homeless services nonprofits, meant to provide housing and employment for hundreds of unhoused San Franciscans. The city also hoped at the time to erect a theme park on the island — then-mayor Willie Brown even envisioned a casino — but those ambitions never came to fruition.

Formerly homeless people moved onto the island, where they had generous living space with views of the San Francisco skyline and, for some, rent pegged at 30 percent of their income. There was a caveat: TIDA and the Navy made clear that residents were not to dig into, or plant anything in, the island’s soil.

“We were excited, coming from a homeless shelter,” said Carmen Mack, who moved there with her children in 2001. “We had a roof over our head.”

The first comprehensive survey of the Treasure Island’s residential area was completed in 2006, although that report’s accuracy was brought into question when contractors hired by the Navy found sites that were deemed clean in the report were later found to be irradiated.

The island has other problems too; the power grid is decades old and outages are a frequent nuisance. Residents also fear displacement as the island undergoes creation of thousands of high-rise apartments, requiring the demolition of the old Navy housing where people currently live. 

But for as long as the island has been open to civilian living, and undergone its years-long cleanup, dust has been a concern.

Dangers of Dust

Dust from the disposal area is more than just dirt. Soil surveys conducted by the Base Realignment and Closure Program Management Office, the Navy’s base decommissioning arm, revealed high concentrations of petroleum, lead, and arsenic, which is carcinogenic and bioaccumulates, meaning it builds up in tissues over time as it is not readily metabolized by the body.

Another risk of dust is its ability to embed deep into the lungs, according to Dr. Ray Tompkins, an environmental scientist and activist who has studied dust in Bayview-Hunters Point. Dust and other fine particulate matter in the lungs can lead to cardiopulmonary issues as it accumulates, interfering with oxygen diffusion into blood and forcing the heart to pump harder to compensate.

To abate dust when digging, contractors cleaning up the Westside SWDA use real-time dust monitoring and spray down the soil being worked, as well as any dirt piled into the backs of trucks according to BRAC spokesperson Tahirih Linz. 

Only BRAC and the contractors they hire monitor dust from the SWDA, and are required to abide by the maximum safe threshold for particulate counts of 0.050 milligrams per cubic meter, as defined by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, to determine whether further dust control or even stopping work is needed to bring dust levels down to acceptable levels.

The latest reports available on BRAC’s public website are from June 2019, and other reports consistently say that dust levels were within acceptable limits.

The Navy, California Department of Public Health, and Department of Toxic Substances Control, which are involved with cleaning up Treasure Island, maintain that people living there face minimal exposure risk, so long as residents stay outside of fenced off areas and do not dig into the soil. 

Plaintiffs in a 2020 class action lawsuit said differently, alleging that the Navy misinformed residents about the risks of living on Treasure Island, endangering them as a result. While the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, it’s one of several other class action suits the Navy faces around clean-ups of other Naval sites, including the former Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard.

Residents’ lack of confidence in the Navy to inform the public about potential health risks associated with Treasure Island and address them is also fueled by other publicized failures by the Navy to ensure quality remediation of Naval sites. 

In 2018, two former employees of Tetra Tech EC, Inc., a contractor remediating the Hunter’s Point former Naval Shipyard, were convicted of falsifying soil samples that were tested for radiological contamination, and reporting by the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2012 found that the Navy had urged California health officials regulating Treasure Island’s remediation to not enter concerns that the island’s clean-up had been mishandled into writing. More recently, a civil grand jury report found that until recently the city’s involvement with the clean-up of the former shipyard was restricted to a single San Francisco Department of Public Health employee.

Greenaction Executive Director Bradley Angel has advocated for a revamped clean-up of former Naval sites in San Francisco, including Treasure Island, saying that people living there continue to live in close proximity to contamination.

“On Treasure Island, you have 2,000 mostly low-income [people], families, and people of color, and formerly unhoused, who were given a roof over their head feet from toxic and radioactive contamination, probably right under their beds,” Angel said.

“We were told nothing”

Violet Andry did not think much of the dust that routinely covered her townhouse on Westside Drive on Treasure Island.

It was the summer of 2006, and the 20-something Academy of Art University student enjoyed the space that living there afforded her. Even as she brushed the dust off her furniture, she assumed that the Navy clean-up was thorough and believed their assurances that her home was safe to inhabit.

“Growing up in a conservative family…you grow up trusting authority,” Andry said.

A year later, she moved to Renton, Wa. and was diagnosed with dysautonomia, a disease that disrupts non-voluntary bodily functions including heartbeat and breathing.

As she researched her illness, she was surprised to have contracted the disease. No one in her family had it. Then, when looking at possible causes she came upon two words: “radiation poisoning.”

“‘Radiation’ just kind of clicked in my head,” Andry said.

The unit Andry lived in was demolished in 2017 to excavate a plume of arsenic. Today, the entire area is inside the Westside SWDA behind fencing with trefoil–emblazoned signs warning of radiation.

The site is just one where contaminants have been found. Navy surveys have found high levels of toxics, particularly in the soil and groundwater.

The first four feet of soil was removed and replaced across much of the island, according to the Navy, which maintains that all areas with high levels of radiation discovered were remediated to background radiation levels, referring to the levels of radiation that exist worldwide following the advent of the atomic age, and currently present minimal risk.

Residents have said that they were only told to keep out of fenced-off areas being remediated, and not to grow anything in the soil, but that there was no risk otherwise.

“We were told nothing,” Andry said.

Anthony Chu, division chief of radiation safety and environmental management at the California Department of Public Health, said during a February 2021 Board of Supervisors hearing that they believe that the fences protect residents sufficiently from contaminated areas like the Westside SWDA. But Chu also said that more than 1,000 people had been moved into areas where the data on safety and contamination was unreliable.

According to CDPH, the Navy is responsible for informing residents about contaminants on the island. BRAC said in a statement that information is available through quarterly community meetings, maintaining an informational website, and by posting and emailing environmental clean-up work notices.

Navy BRAC, CDPH, and the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is the main oversight body of BRAC remediation of Treasure Island, maintain that Treasure Island is safe to inhabit with minimal radiological risk.

When asked about residents’ concerns related to dust, a spokesperson for DTSC, the primary agency overseeing the Navy’s remediation of Treasure Island, said that they respond to people who reach out to them directly and that the Navy is responsible for creating dust abatement plans, which DTSC must approve.

“Due to the nature of the location, DTSC pays particular attention to dust control at Treasure Island during its oversight of Navy fieldwork,” a DTSC spokesperson said.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey said that he needed to have more “conversations” and did not share any concrete plans around how he planned to address residents’ concerns around dust exposure.. Dorsey said that he was unaware of such complaints until he was interviewed by this reporter.

“If there are questions about dust or toxic dust, I will need to do a lot more homework on it and also have some conversations with residents I haven’t had to understand their concerns and then do everything I can to address them,” Dorsey said.

At the Westside SWDA, there will be more digging, and more dust. Rockett, however, said she is unsure about her future.

“I’ll see how it goes. I hope I’ll be okay,” said Rockett.

This project was supported by California Humanities Emerging Journalist Fellowship Program. For more information, visit www.calhum.org. Any views or findings expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of California Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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

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