Margaret Billsborough has survived unspeakable traumas: childhood abuse, wrenching poverty, homelessness, and crack-cocaine addiction. So when she, and many other vulnerable people like her, were given the opportunity to move into an apartment on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, it seemed like a dream come true. Here, she thought, was a quiet, idyllic refuge where she could begin to heal.
What she didn’t know at the time was that the former Naval base was strewn with radioactive waste. She did not know that many past residents now have cancer. She did not know that cleanup workers, lawyers, activists, and health officials have been trying for years to sound the alarm.
But she did sense that something was not quite right. She was told not to plant vegetables in her yard. The lease she signed warned, “This apartment community contains … substances known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects.” When she walks around the island, she sees many fenced-off sites with signs that state, “Warning: Radiologically Controlled Area.” One of these radioactive sites is adjacent to the Boys & Girls Club, where her kids often played.
From Billsborough’s perspective, the Navy, which oversees the cleanup, doesn’t really care about her family, despite the cheery newsletters it sends out, reassuring residents about the cleanup process. In 2008, Billsborough and her two youngest daughters — ages seven and nine at the time — woke up to find workers in blue Hazmat suits and masks digging up a common area right behind her backyard on 1244G North Point Drive. No one had told her that these workers were coming. Her window was wide open. Alarmed, she called her caseworker and property manager. While the cleanup workers were still digging, an official from the Navy showed up. He apologized for not telling her to shut her window, called off the dig, and told the workers to leave.
“It was never reported anywhere,” Billsborough said. “Nothing was ever done. Nobody ever came and said, ‘Do you want to get checked out from the doctor?’ Nothing. They were just like, ‘These people are in low-income housing. They really don’t know who to talk to and what to do about it anyway.’ And I feel that that’s how they view us out here.”
After my conversation with Billsborough at her home in early August, The Bay Citizen published two news reports, on August 17 and 28, that featured excerpts from emails and memos between the Navy and government agencies, some of which suggest that the danger of radioactive waste on Treasure Island has been poorly assessed and underreported. The emails also show that the Navy has attempted to stymie its strongest critic, the California Department of Public Health. Many Treasure Island residents, including Billsborough, are now terrified about their children’s long-term health. They are beginning to band together and confront the authorities.
Created from a landfill in 1937 for the 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island opened in 1942 as a naval base during a period when the US government was testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific. The base was used, in part, to repair ships that the Navy recently acknowledged might have been exposed to nuclear waste, and also served as a training center for nuclear decontamination, which involved the use of radium-226 and other radioactive materials.
Radium-226 is one of the more dangerous toxins in the world. While some radioisotopes have short half-lives — i.e., the time it takes for the toxicity of a substance to be reduced by half — radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. Radium-226 is therefore almost as toxic today as it was sixty years ago. The greatest risk is ingestion. Depending on the form by which it is ingested, it may never leave a person’s body — the body treats radium-226 like calcium and consequently it moves into the bones. This means that when you ingest radium-226, you likely ingest it for life. The heightened risk of cancer and other illnesses may stay with you forever.
The dangers of exposure to radioactive materials were less understood in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and contamination cleanup was far less thorough than it is today. The island may have been polluted during the cleanup of a nuclear training ship called the Pandemonium or by mistakes made during nuclear decontamination trainings conducted on the island. In 1950, after 40 milligrams of radium sulfate powder was spilled in a Navy lab, students and instructors inadvertently tracked the powder to other areas. Additionally, the Navy has found octagonal, 1-inch- and 1.5-inch-diameter metal disks throughout the island from an unknown source; some of these disks contain very high levels of radium-226.
According to two confidential sources who have been involved in aspects of the Treasure Island cleanup, the Navy has deceived residents in the past about the safety of the island and continues to deceive them now. Over the past five years, at least three shipments of extremely dangerous radioactive contamination — most of it from these metal disks — have been moved from Treasure Island to secure locations. One of these shipments left Treasure Island in 2007, another in 2009, and the third likely left in 2011. The level of radioactive contamination in these shipments was considered high. “If a person spent a few hours in close proximity to the material inside one of these shipments,” one source said, “he or she could receive enough exposure to be dead within a month.”
Kim Kellner knew nothing about the radioactive waste when she lived on Treasure Island as a teenager from 1970 to 1975. Her dad was career Navy, and the family moved to the island from the Naval Air Station on Guam. For her, Treasure Island was a safe, beautiful place where she traveled everywhere by foot — to the island’s teen club, bowling alley, cafeteria, and movie theater — always breathing in the fresh ocean air. “It was the best,” she remembered. “That’s why, when you read a lot of the posts [on Facebook], people have fond memories of the place — not realizing that we were paying a price.”
In 2002, Kellner was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors determined through genetic testing that it was not hereditary. She endured chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and her cancer is now in remission. As she began to share her story with others, Kellner noticed a troubling trend: In addition to both of her parents, more than a dozen of her Treasure Island friends and neighbors also had cancer. One of her closest friends, Sam Tyo, died at the age of 45, killed by stomach cancer that spread to his pancreas and liver. Kellner visited him two weeks before his death, and she recalled him wondering aloud why his own brother and so many of his friends had cancer, too.
When Kellner took her husband to Treasure Island in 2009 to show him where she grew up, it had turned into a ghost town. All of her former stomping grounds — the cafeteria, movie theater, and bowling alley — were boarded up with signs warning of asbestos and other cancer-causing toxins. She also remembered that in the early 1970s, there had been construction going on near the former teen club, which was located across from the elementary school. “During the time that we were going to that teen club, they were digging up an area on the northwest end of the island for new housing, and no one ever knew of any hazardous waste there,” she said. “So I’m thinking now, ‘Geez! We were on that island, and we were probably downwind, because the wind came from west to east. So we may have been breathing all of that stuff.'”
As she pulled up to her former home at 1317C Gateview Drive, she was in for an even bigger shock: The whole unit was fenced off and covered with green tarps. Signs on the fences warned of radioactive materials. “It just made me sick,” she said. “And then to see that there were people living on the island!”
Kellner and a dozen other former residents interviewed for this story are disheartened that no one has acknowledged what they believe is the real cause of their suffering. E.J. Mocklin lost eleven childhood friends to cancer, including his best friend, Tina Miltenberger, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 26 and died in 1996 at the age of 39. Miltenberger’s sister is a survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “For me, this is Tina’s story,” said Mocklin, who gave the eulogy at Miltenberger’s funeral and has himself survived leukemia and multiple sclerosis. “I won’t be at peace until they say, ‘Yes, the toxic waste has had an impact on human health, and it’s affected thousands of people.'”
The approximately 2,000 people living on Treasure Island today are a mix of low- to middle-income college students, residents, and professionals who chose to reside on the island, despite many of them knowing that there might be health risks. One resident, Alex Kostushkin, moved to Treasure Island four years ago from a town near Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. “I saw [radioactive waste] signs near our house [on Treasure Island] but did not pay too much attention to it,” he said.
Mark Connors, the editor-in-chief of Treasure Island News, a community newsletter that includes summaries of Navy meetings about the contamination cleanup, said he came to Treasure Island for the cheap rent in a “nice, quiet place” with “lots of fresh air.” He lives in what he describes as a “huge” three-bedroom that rents for less than $2,000 a month, with all utilities included. His said his main concern is the community’s “episodic crime waves.”
Connors and others like him who rent market-rate homes compose about 71 percent of the island’s residents; however, many within that group are financially insecure. Market-rate renters include people in subsidized Section 8 housing, people living on Social Security or unemployment, and cash-strapped college students who share multi-room apartments — paying as little as $300 or $400 per person per month, with all utilities included. “It’s almost like economic slavery in a way,” said Kathryn Lundgren, a market-rate resident. “They’ve entrapped us by making it so appealing, and now my family is in an economic condition we never expected and we can’t afford to move.”
The other 29 percent of the residents come to the island through the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative’s member organizations. For many of these individuals, it was Treasure Island, the ghetto, or the streets. Former ex-convicts, recovering drug addicts, HIV-positive individuals, and the formerly homeless find on Treasure Island the support they desperately need for themselves and their families. In many cases, residents pay rent that’s 30 percent of their income; some have no income and consequently pay no rent. A federally funded program on the island called Job Corps provides free room and board to students who want to obtain their GED or high school diploma, learn a trade skill, and receive help in finding a job and living independently. I talked with ten Jobs Corps students who were hanging out in the school courtyard during the first week in August; only three knew about radioactive waste on the island.
Why were people allowed to move onto the island in the late 1990s, even when the Navy and San Francisco political leaders knew there might be health risks? At the time, city officials worried that the former Navy housing would decay and lose value, and San Francisco was looking for an additional source of revenue to offset the cost of managing Treasure Island. The city anticipates receiving approximately $4.3 million in fiscal year 2012-13 from market-rate rental housing revenues.
Saul Bloom of Arc Ecology voiced his opposition when the city first opened the island to renters after the Navy closed the base in 1997, and he’s alternately been a promoter and a critic of the island’s development. Although his environmental advocacy organization was originally supportive of the city’s 2006 development plan for the island, Arc Ecology (as part of Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island) recently filed a lawsuit challenging the Navy’s environmental impact report; a decision is expected before the end of the year. “It’s called sloppiness,” he said of the decision to open the island to residential housing. “It’s called failure to do your due diligence before you actually go ahead and begin to utilize the site and not paying attention to the reasonable concerns people have. … [It’s about] looking to satisfy one bottom line while ignoring another.”
Over the past fifteen years, the island has gradually opened for business to the general public — it has hosted film productions (including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), conferences for prominent companies like Oracle, jewelry exhibitions, weddings, music festivals, as well as little league and rugby teams. Environmentally conscious visitors can even charge their electric vehicles on the island at three charging stations in the Treasure Island Marina parking lot.
Multiple wineries also operate on the island, including The Fat Grape Winery. I met with Patrick Bowen, the owner, in early August as he sprayed down large metallic wine containers with water. For Bowen, and many business owners on the island, radioactive waste is a sensitive issue — it’s bad for business. Bowen said he wasn’t concerned about toxins on the island because “it all goes through state regulations and federal regulations.” He added: “Business is getting better every day, every week, every month. I have lots of returning customers. … I have something different — wine without sulfides. There are only five or so wineries without sulfides in the state of California.” Despite the fact that his winery is two blocks from the island’s “high radiation” storage area, Bowen said, “Sulfides are more of a concern to me, because I’m allergic, than any radioactive materials out here.”
The most worrisome sites on the island are those where kids with fragile, still developing immune systems may be exposed to toxins. The island’s only child development center serves about 45 kids, ages three months to five years, and is directly across the street from a radiologically controlled area called Site 31, which contains low-level radioactive dirt that has yet to be shipped off the island. “When the balls go over the fence, we don’t get them back,” said center director Kathie Autumn.
The draft minutes of an August 3, 2011 meeting about the cleanup that was closed to the public highlighted concerns raised during the meeting by Gene Forrer, an associate health physicist at the California Department of Public Health’s Radiologic Health Branch. According to the draft minutes, Forrer “pointed out that no radiological controls were in place during the field work at Site 31.” He also noted that a pile of dirt excavated from Site 31 was “significantly contaminated” and asked about “the problem of wind and the site location between the child development center and the Boys & Girls Club.”
While kids at the child development center and the Boys & Girls Club are closely supervised, adolescents and teenagers often wander the island alone. In May 2006, SF Weekly published “Toxic Acres,” which included a photo of a child who looked to be about ten years old crawling out of a contaminated, off-limits area on Treasure Island. Examples like this belie the Navy’s insistence that it has implemented institutional controls to keep people safe, including cordoning off contaminated areas, covering radioactive dirt with plastic, and instructing residents not to grow anything in the soil. The reality is that some people — children especially — simply are not going to follow the rules.
The Treasure Island community may look dramatically different in the coming decades if San Francisco political leaders and real estate developers are able to move ahead with their plans to build an eco-friendly mini-city of 20,000 people. The City of San Francisco has agreed to pay up to $105 million for the Treasure Island site and will also contribute more than $800 million in bond funds. Treasure Island Community Development, LLC — which comprises Lennar, Wilson Meany, and Kenwood Investments — will contribute approximately $500 million. Politicians have predicted Treasure Island will become the city’s “premiere date night locale” and developers have made ambitious plans for multiple residential towers, a forty-story hotel, parks, boutique shops, and restaurants. At least 25 percent of units will reportedly be set aside for low-income housing.
Many have celebrated the plans as a win-win for everyone involved, and labor unions in particular have been among the strongest supporters. Former House Speaker and San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said that development on Treasure Island will create 2,500 long-term jobs and bring $5 billion in public and private investment.
Others have lambasted the development deal for alleged obfuscations, insider deals, and conflict-of-interest issues. Tony Hall, the former executive director of the Treasure Island Development Authority (the lead city agency responsible for overseeing the project), described Treasure Island development as a “den of corruption.” In a 2010 San Francisco Public Press Special Report on Treasure Island, journalist Jeremy Adam Smith wrote, “The more one learns about the stake lobbyists and developers have in Treasure Island, the more one wonders if the Ecotopian vision isn’t just a way to sell development to a skeptical public.”
Treasure Island Community Development, LLC was one of only two bidders for the project. Other potential developers reportedly opted not to bid in part due to concerns about the risk of the island liquefying in an earthquake. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Treasure Island sank several feet. Environmentalists also have voiced concern about a disaster if a massive flood hits the island — an earthquake off Alaska could trigger one — or if sea levels rise more than developers have anticipated.
Tsunamis and sea-level rise also complicate the radioactive contamination cleanup because they increase the potential for contamination to spread to other parts of the island — and the Bay Area. This could be worsened by the fact that the groundwater is extremely high on Treasure Island, making radioactive material more than a foot underground almost impossible to detect with surface scans. During a natural disaster, hidden radioactive material could come to the surface and harm residents trapped on the island.
Lennar, one of the three companies leading the Treasure Island project, specializes in transforming former military bases — many of which are similarly contaminated — into residential housing. It also helped fuel the recent mortgage crisis through its involvement in subprime loan properties and speculative over-building. And as it has done on Treasure Island, Lennar once made commitments to build affordable housing in San Francisco’s Hunters Point and Orange County. In Orange County, Lennar required low-income buyers to make a 50 percent down payment, although it originally advertised the project with the words “3 percent down payment required.” In Hunters Point, Lennar built less low-income housing than it had advertised when San Francisco voted in favor of its development plan. After struggling to stay afloat through the mortgage crisis, Lennar seems to have bounced back, but its stability is increasingly dependent on risky mega-projects like Treasure Island — which may explain why the company is pushing so hard to get city officials to expedite the Treasure Island development despite the health and environmental issues.
Elected officials often have political and financial incentives that can override concerns about public health, and Treasure Island is no exception. “When we go in to try to stop these toxic and radioactive projects, it’s really hard to get the [San Francisco] city officials to do the right thing,” said Eric Brooks, the campaign coordinator for Our City, a movement working on consumer, social justice, and environmental issues. “They’re under pressure from companies like Lennar and also from the building trade unions, whose members are desperate for work. I don’t fault them, but it’s kind of like in the old days when loggers were pitted against environmentalists. We should all be working together on this. The builders will be more exposed to toxins than anyone else.”
The City of San Francisco, meanwhile, has pledged to exercise the highest level of caution to protect public health. On June 17, 2003, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the “precautionary principle” as city and county policy. Part of the statement read: “Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to postpone measures to prevent the degradation of the environment or protect the health of its citizens.”
The precautionary principle was not followed on Treasure Island. Last month, the Express obtained internal emails and memo exchanges between the Navy, the California Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, in which officials from the Department of Public Health voiced concern at the “heavily flawed” 2006 Historical Radiological Assessment, which claimed that radiological contamination of the island was minimal and confined to a handful of hotspots. The Bay Citizen obtained most of the same documents for its August 17 and 28 reports.
The correspondences were provided to the Express by Tony Gantner, a local environmental lawyer who has followed this issue for the past two years and obtained the documents through a California Public Records Act request. Gantner has written letters to the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to citizen leaders of Treasure Island, drawing attention to the potential danger. One of his letters, hand-delivered to the office of Mayor Ed Lee on November 9, 2011, followed the city’s April certification of an Environmental Impact Report that claimed that “remaining low-level radiological material contamination at the Naval base is isolated to small portions of Site 12 and Building 233.” Gantner wrote in his letter: “That was a radiologic lie then. … It has proven even more so today.”
Many of the cleanup mistakes at Treasure Island can be traced to the work of Shaw Environmental, which is contracted by the Navy to conduct the cleanup and has financial incentives not to find radiologic material. Uncovering radiologic material means that the project slows down dramatically. In a 2007 Navy newsletter to residents of Treasure Island, Shaw Project Manager Pete Bourgeois stated that the most rewarding and challenging part of his job was “completing a task or project on time, under budget, and safely providing the client a service that helps them with their final goal.” The client he presumably referred to was the Navy, not the people of Treasure Island.
Internal emails and memos suggest that Shaw was initially sloppy in handling radioactive material, although the company has since amended many of its protocols. Shaw received multiple notices of violation from the state for its failures to properly measure and document radiation levels and for its unsafe movement of radioactive soil around the island in a manner that may have contaminated previously uncontaminated sites. A June 23, 2011 letter from Kent Prendergast of the California Department of Public Health’s Radiologic Health Branch to Shaw’s leadership stated:
“CDPH found numerous instances where Shaw failed to conduct and/or document radiation/contamination surveys. … It is apparent from these and previous violations that there is a lack of radiological oversight, practical hands-on experience with environmental radiological projects and methods, basic radiation technology experience, and/or a failure to include the Radiation Safety Officer in production management decisions that affect the radiological protection program at the Treasure Island project.”
The letter further noted that Shaw’s failure to properly calibrate and conduct performance tests on survey meters was “so serious that you must correct it immediately.” The state has recently taken the rare step of assigning state inspectors to the Treasure Island site — a likely sign that it lacks confidence in the cleanup operations.
One of my sources shared a photograph from about five years ago showing a worker from Shaw using a backhoe loader to dump dirt that contained radium-226 into an open-bed truck. Some of the radioactive dirt got caught in the wind and spilled onto the road. The worker in the photo was not wearing protective equipment. The scene depicted in this photo is corroborated by internal Department of Public Health emails.
The concerns also extend to Shaw’s technical procedures. According to emails and memos, Shaw used the island’s Ninth Street Playground to establish a base-level reading for naturally occurring “background radiation.” Yet laboratory analysis of the playground’s soil indicated slightly elevated levels of thorium and radium-226. While the levels were not considered dangerous, the analysis brought into question Shaw’s technical competence in choosing an elevated area as its basis for “background radiation.” At an August 21 community meeting, Ryan Miya, an official from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said that Shaw had used detection technology that was not sensitive enough, and consequently did not spot the initial error. Another site on Treasure Island is now being used for establishing background radiation.
Radiologic contamination has now been found on Treasure Island throughout a vast 93-acre area called Site 12. This site represents about 20 percent of the land where developers hope to build their eco-city. On the first days of digging at Site 12 in 2006, those dangerous octagonal metal disks were uncovered.
At a recent Treasure Island Restoration Advisory Board meeting, Shaw’s Radiation Safety Monitor, Christine Donahue, told residents that the disks, which are also called foils or commodities, are actually not so dangerous. “High-level is a relative term,” she said. “You go to a hospital and you get an X-ray or a CAT scan — that can be considered high-level. It’s far more damaging than picking up one of these radium foils. Even a visit to the dentist, if you get a panoramic, it’s much more than this foil.”
A source involved in the cleanup expressed shock at Donahue’s comment. “If a person were to hold one of these disks,” the source said, “the annual exposure limit for the general public set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would likely be exceeded in less than an hour.”
Many island residents mistakenly believe that radioactive contamination mostly comes from relatively harmless glow-in-the-dark buttons distributed during the 1939 and 1940 International Exposition. In fact, the mysterious metal disks represent the primary and generally most dangerous source of radioactive contamination on Treasure Island — and the Navy does not seem to know their original source.
James Sullivan, a civil engineer with no radiologic expertise contracted by the Navy to oversee the cleanup, said in an interview that the disks come from “a couple of sources,” but he declined to be specific. Later, in an email statement, Sullivan confirmed that the Navy could only guess about the original source of these disks: “It appears that these disks were placed in a holding device to simulate different levels of radioactivity during training exercises which would be consistent with the Treasure Island training mission.”
Unless the Navy can definitively explain why such large quantities of the disks have been discarded on the island and why they are allegedly confined only to certain areas, some health officials may push the Navy to “fully classify” Treasure Island. This is a technical term for testing and classifying every parcel of land for radioactive contamination, as opposed to testing only areas thought to be contaminated.
Comprehensive testing not only would be an exorbitantly expensive task, but also would invariably be plagued by the problem of high groundwater. Surface scans conducted by Shaw rarely identify the radioactive disks unless they are within six inches to a foot from the surface. “You can put very radioactive material in a foot of water and have difficulty detecting it,” an unnamed source close to the cleanup told CalWatchdog’s Anthony Pignataro in 2010. “There’s just no way to know if the whole island is toxic.”
During a tense and emotional August 21 Restoration Advisory Board meeting on the island, the Navy attempted to calm residents who were alarmed by what The Bay Citizen had published. Officials from the California Department of Public Health, which has been the most critical of the cleanup, were not present at the meeting. David Clark, the Navy’s lead remedial project manager, promised to give residents “the information you need to make an informed decision.” Officials from the Navy and Shaw repeatedly said, “There is no evidence to support that there are any human health risks on Treasure Island.”
But their statements omitted crucial information.
During the meeting, I asked Clark how far the material inside the three shipments of highly dangerous radioactive material was from where people live, work, and play. Clark replied, to audible sounds of exasperation from the audience: “For those specific comments, we will get back to you. We want to get you the correct information, so we will take that as an action item and get specific answers to that.”
Clark further assured residents: “There is no human health risk to residents or anyone at the Boys & Girls Club. … All of [the sites] are monitored constantly for any exposure issues and the air is monitored as well. … The state has reviewed that data — they are aware of it — and they have not seen any air issues from our radiation sites.”
Clark did not mention that, until 2007, when the island cleanup came under state regulation, Shaw may have taken air samples at Site 31 for lead and PCB, but not for radioactive material. It’s therefore impossible to know if that air was safe for the children to breathe. Until pressed, he did not mention that this monitoring is conducted by Shaw, the same company that received notices of violation for unsafe conduct in other parts of its operation.
In response to residents’ concerns about safe groundwater, Ryan Miya from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said: “There is monitoring of the groundwater quality, and chemical analysis, as well as radiological analysis. Especially with the radiological analysis, there hasn’t been any detection of radionuclides in the groundwater.” Miya did not reveal that groundwater sampling for radionuclides has been conducted only since 2008 and only in Site 12.
Christine Donahue, Shaw’s radiation safety officer, further comforted community members by saying that surface scans for radiologic materials are being carried out on the island. When pressed, however, she acknowledged the fact that these scans can generally reach only six inches to one foot due to high groundwater. She also told residents that the dirt at Site 31, across from the child development center, was not dangerous. “I could drape myself in that material,” she said. “I could dribble it all over myself and I’d be okay. I promise.”
In an email statement, officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has often defended the Navy’s cleanup competence, declined to comment on Donahue’s “dribble” remark. However, they noted that “the chemicals of concern [at Site 31] are lead, dioxin, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).” These three chemicals can be absorbed through the skin if “dribbled” all over oneself and can cause serious health problems — which is why workers wear Hazmat suits when dealing with them. The low-level radioactive material found at Site 31 cannot be absorbed through the skin but is dangerous if inhaled; the chances of inhalation would certainly increase if this dirt was dribbled all over oneself.
Shortly before the August 21 meeting, at about 6:15 p.m., I snapped photographs of the parking lot outside the Shaw offices at Site 570, where the more dangerous radioactive materials are stored. The signs on the storage boxes in this parking lot indicated that this is a “high radiation area.” Under the guidelines of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high radiation areas must be clearly marked and access to these areas must be “maintained under strict control.”
Yet the gate to the parking lot was wide open and no workers were around. I watched two children ride by on bikes. During the Restoration Advisory Board meeting, I told Clark about this incident, and he said that kids would be safe outside the closed storage boxes. “Regular scanning shows that there’s no contamination,” he said. In an email statement in response to my question about this situation, the California Department of Public Health officials (CDPH) seemed to acknowledge that concern was warranted. They wrote: “CDPH has an open investigation of Site 570, which includes security and materials located there.”
On August 17, 2010, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed an “endorsement agreement” to transfer the island from the Department of Defense to the City of San Francisco. At the ceremony, Newsom called the Treasure Island plans “arguably the most environmentally friendly infill development in American history.” As it turns out, this was not actually an official transfer: The real transfer depends on a stamp of approval from state health officials so the city cannot be held liable for public health problems.
California health officials will submit their comments on the Navy’s latest draft report by September 5. They may call for the full classification of every inch of the island, which would take many years and cost millions more than initially anticipated. Some believe that all current residents should be moved off the island until the cleanup is completed, while others insist that residents can be kept safe through additional precautions.
But the latter group subscribes to a different definition of “safe” than the general public may realize — and different from what many scientists have concluded. A 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that no level of exposure to radioactive materials is ever completely harmless. “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” the report stated. “The health risks — particularly the development of solid cancers in organs — rise proportionally with exposure.”
On Treasure Island, much remains to be seen. Will the development plans for the “premiere date-night locale” be stalled indefinitely? Will current residents of the island — the ones who may have inhaled unsafe air for years — be able to afford the rent on the island if and when it’s cleaned up? Will politicians who pushed aggressively for Treasure Island development be challenged on what they did and did not know about the public health risk? Will other former military bases across the country come under closer scrutiny? (At Treasure Island, the Navy reports to the State of California, not the federal government; the emails obtained by Gantner show that the Navy’s failures might never have surfaced without the interventions of these state health officials.) Will a cancer cluster analysis of former Treasure Island residents be conducted? Will a class-action lawsuit be pursued? Will officials from the Navy and Shaw ever be held accountable?
Many Treasure Island residents, meanwhile, are not staying silent. The most powerful part of the August 21 Restoration Advisory Board meeting was not the misleading statements by Navy and Shaw officials, but rather the resolve of residents to parse out the technical terminology, share their stories, and demand answers. “I’m trying to play it cool, but I’m kind of getting edgy,” said Melanie Jones, a community leader who used to be homeless and has lived on the island with her kids since 1999. She also has long been an outspoken proponent of island development. “I came here to find out: Am I in danger? I need to know. I don’t want to go around sugar-coating.”
Multiple audience members said that they sensed a repeat of what’s happened at Bayview-Hunters Point, a radiologically contaminated former Navy shipyard in which Lennar is deeply invested. A toxic underground fire broke out a few years ago in one of the most hazardous areas of concern at this site; it burned for weeks. “I used to work for the child welfare department up on 3801 Third Street in the Bayview, and I had a lot of families come through there sick from being up by the shipyard,” one female audience member said. “And what I’m hearing tonight is basically the same BS that they got when they had to deal with it over there.”
Two representatives from the Boys & Girls Club asked if their kids might be inhaling airborne radioactive dust. One Treasure Island resident noted that the EPA had similarly asserted that the air around the World Trade Center after 9/11 was safe — a claim that later proved to be false. Other residents shared stories about residents with health problems, including rashes, asthma, lupus, and cancer. Two audience members asked if a health survey had been conducted on current and past residents. It has not.
Kathryn Lundgren, the woman who told me that living on Treasure Island is “almost like economic slavery,” left the August 21 meeting early, in tears. Lundgren’s 12-year-old daughter, who I’ll call Mandy (she asked that her real name not be used), has lupus, constant rashes, and at least four ovarian cysts that cause her enormous pain; Mandy was to have exploratory surgery the next day to determine possible causes. An audience member read Lundgren’s question from a piece of paper; she wanted to know the results of swab tests for toxins that had been conducted in her home five years ago.
The week following the meeting, I met with Kathryn Lundgren at her American flag-draped apartment at 1201 Bayside Drive. The Lundgren’s three-bedroom home — which houses Kathryn, her husband Eric, Mandy, and two older siblings — sits less than one block from a former Bayside Drive dig site, one of two places in Site 12 where many of those dangerous radioactive disks were found.
All of her family members have suffered unusual health issues, and Lundgren said she would not have moved here in 2005 if she had known what she knows now. “I just took their word for it that it wasn’t harmful, that the levels weren’t going to affect you, that [the radioactivity] was just in little buttons,” she said. “I feel they violated my lease. I didn’t agree to the [contaminated] stuff that was added to my environment or to the stuff that was already here but they didn’t reveal.”
Lundgren told me about the day — she thinks it was in 2007 — when two scientists came into her home to take swab tests. “They came in fully suited — white suits, face masks, goggles, gloves — and took samples of the dust in the windows and the dust around here, the bathroom, everywhere,” she recalled. “They didn’t give me the company they worked for. They didn’t tell me where to find the results. And I never heard anything else about it. … I need to know the results of those tests.”
Since that incident, Lundgren has resolved to take her own tests, but she’s not sure where to start. She recently emailed famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich. In a jar under her sink, Lundgren has water samples she took from a flood that happened in early April. The floodwater came across radioactive sites to within about a half-block from her home. Local kids and dogs were playing in the water. “Do you know anyone who could test this water?” she asked.
On the ceiling of Lundgren’s living room are blue stars and heart-shaped clouds made from construction paper. Lundgren added these decorations for Mandy, who wanted to have something pretty to look at while she lay on the couch in severe pain from her cysts, which currently range in size from 0.7 centimeters to three centimeters. One of these cysts grew to the size of a tennis ball earlier this year and then shrunk. Last year Mandy missed almost six weeks of school due to her health problems.
At the recent Restoration Advisory Board meeting, Lundgren felt that Navy officials were condescending toward her and were spreading misinformation. “They talked about the extremely high amounts [of radioactive material], which I’m assuming were removed from the end of my street,” she said. “So it may be coincidental, but you’re driving by people’s homes and you don’t have covered trucks, and you know that it’s that highly contaminated and the dust is flowing into our windowsills.”
As for Mandy, she’s a tough, upbeat girl with curly blond hair who speaks with a maturity beyond her years. She is now back home from her exploratory surgery and trying to catch up on her homework. She took me on a tour to see the multiple “sink holes” that have formed right outside her home — a reflection of the island’s loose soil and susceptibility to liquefaction during an earthquake. One of the holes, now covered with grass, used to be about three feet deep. “I saw kids sliding down into it with cardboard boxes,” Mandy said.
She also shared a memory from when she was only five years old and her family was meeting with the rental agency to sign their lease. “They were like, ‘You can’t dig here, kids,'” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘But isn’t that what kids are gonna do? They’re gonna dig in the ground. What if we hit something that’s bad for kids? And kids eat it. And kids can get sick. And that’s bad too. Kids are gonna be kids.'”
When this article went to press, Kathryn Lundgren was waiting for the results of Mandy’s biopsies. It is possible that her cysts are harmless and will go away on their own. Cancer is also a possibility. “That scares me and her, so she doesn’t really talk about it much,” Lundgren said. “And we don’t talk about it, because she needs to be a kid.”
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified an official from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control who spoke at an August 21 meeting on Treasure Island. His name is Ryan Miya — not Ryan Lee.