Poisoned by Redevelopment

Once again last Tuesday, the people of Bayview Hunters Point packed Grace Tabernacle Church a block from the Shipyard for a town hall meeting on the harm caused by Lennar’s toxic dust. Photo: Sis. Tonja

Learn and tell the truth at the next town hall meeting Thursday, May 24, 6pm, at Grace Tabernacle Community Church, 1121 Oakdale Ave.; call (866) 475-6907

by Sam Drew, Poor News Network

“Politics as usual,” I said to myself as I disgustedly glanced at the San Francisco Examiner. The article stated that in a 9-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution expanding the massive project the City and the Lennar Corp. are planning from the Hunters Point Shipyard to Candlestick Point. The Board seemed oblivious to the fact that Lennar’s work at the Shipyard is rife with asbestos poisoning.

Asbestos causes a disease that is close to me and my family. My father spent 20 years in the Merchant Marine, working in ships’ boiler rooms that were filled with asbestos dust. This was during the ‘50s when medical science wasn’t aware of the dangers of asbestosis. I watched him transform from a robust, fun loving man on the town to an old man who couldn’t walk a city block because of severe breathing problems.

This project includes 6,500 units of housing at Candlestick Point, 2,000 units of housing at the Hunters Point Shipyard, retail and office space, parks and a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers at the Shipyard. Supervisors Chris Daly and Ed Jew voted against the resolution.

Supervisor Jew said, “This is the most enormous redevelopment project ever undertaken by The City.” He also said the City should not “ignore” the over 30,000 residents who signed a petition to put this plan on the ballot.

I recently had the privilege to listen to some of those 30,000 residents when I attended the May 15 town hall meeting on environmental racism just a strong cool breeze away from the Hunters Point Shipyard at the bustling Grace Tabernacle Community Church.

As I strolled into the stately church in the historic Bayview Hunters Point district for the town hall meeting, I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful children seated on the back pews. Rows and rows of neatly dressed children doing what little folks do best: laughing, smiling, giggling, wiggling and bubbling over with life. The joyful noise would be momentarily abated when an adult would quietly but sternly say shhhhh! Silence would descend for a few minutes, but merriment would slowly resurface behind stifled snickers as the young ones cut each other sly glances.

The reason for the town hall meeting was to alert the Bayview Hunters Point community that it is being poisoned to death by breathing asbestos-laced toxic dust every day. The cause of this virulent vapor is the redevelopment project going on at the Hunters Point Shipyard. The company in charge of this toxic cleanup and construction is the Lennar Corp. A Miami-based firm that is the third largest home builder in the country, Lennar is throwing its hat into urban redevelopment with the blessing and support of the mayor and the City.

The packed church had the feeling of an old time revival meeting as three fervent firebrand figures implored the galvanized gathering to rise up and tell the city they’re mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. Minister Christopher Muhammad, Archbishop Franzo King and host Pastor Ernest Jackson each took turns letting the audience know that the community will not place jobs or redevelopment over the health and the wellbeing of its citizens. “We need uncompromising leadership that will not watch our babies, mothers and our fathers be destroyed for economic purposes!” declared King.

Next Minister Muhammad explained the root meaning of the word conspiracy, “It’s from the Latin word that means to breathe together. We are breathing death as we speak!” The type of death being inhaled was explained in exacting detail. “Asbestos dust, when it gets in your lungs, it never leaves,” stated Muhammad.

As the congregation gasped at this revelation, they were further shocked by the genesis of this plague. Muhammad said, “Lennar was supposed to have monitors on site to check the levels of acceptable dust particles you can breathe. But for four months, from April to August, there were no monitors.” Muhammad told of children wiping their faces with towels and seeing the towels turn brown from dust. He also told of dust clouds so thick children complained of breathing problems.

Muhammad decried those in responsible positions who have been negligent in responding to this health crisis. “The Health Department is supposes to watch out on behalf of the community. And the Redevelopment Agency is to make sure the company is in compliance with the laws. The City has the power to shut it (Lennar) down if they do not follow the rules.”

Special concern was given to so-called community leaders who know about the problem but succumb to the safety-in-silence syndrome. “The day of giving passes is over! So-called leaders have sold their souls for crumbs off the table. In the name of development they have left the community exposed to toxic waste. Supervisor Sophie Maxwell never said a word. Her silence is deafening. She was elected to represent the people.”

Shouts of amen reverberated off the multicolored stained glass windows as the faithful were told of lawsuits against Lennar by three of its highest level Black employees for concealing evidence of toxic elevations of asbestos. Special commendations were given to Chris Carpenter, the worker who was fired by Lennar for blowing the whistle on their toxic malfeasance.

Carpenter was more concerned about the health hazards the community was being exposed to than holding on to his good job. He explained: “When we were working on the hill digging on the side of the dirt, we had to use water to suppress the dirt from being airborne. The dust became so thick I couldn’t see my fellow workers! I received a call from someone downtown telling me to stay away from the issue because things can get bad!” But that kind of talk didn’t scare Carpenter away from the truth. He laughed and said with a smile, “I grew up in the Bayview Hunters Point.”

No one seemed scared of the truth at this town hall meeting. No one apologized for possible injured feelings that might arise in this crusade for environmental justice. “Feelings can be healed, but lung disease can’t be healed. The poisoning of our community continues,” declared Muhammad. “Last week a reading was over 21,000 particulates; 16,000 is an acceptable amount of dust you can breathe.”

The assembled were told that a doctor with special expertise had been flown out to test for the effects of asbestos toxicity on the community. But Dr. Mitch Katz, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, debunked his testing method: “That’s not good science,” Katz said. “Maybe in 100 years I might be proven wrong.”

Asbestos has an incubation period of 20 years. It can remain in the lungs for long periods of time before you suffer from asbestosis. Asbestosis causes scarring of the lungs. When the lungs become scarred, the passageways begin to close, making it difficult to breathe.

Plans for community involvement and empowerment were delineated by Muhammad: “We’re going apartment to apartment to let them know what they have been exposed to and who exposed them. We are going door to door to educate our people.” By our people he meant the entire community, as represented by the energized and involved church filled with African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos and Samoans, who were standing and cheering. Those who entered this hallowed building were being educated, motivated, organized and mobilized. Also in the works is a class action lawsuit on behalf of every man, woman, boy and girl in the Bayview Hunters Point district.

Muhammad lowered his voice as he told of efforts to reach people downtown. “All we asked them is to shut (the work) down and come and test. That isn’t unreasonable is it?” Olive branches were offered to politicians and community leaders to listen with open minds to the citizens. Truth was being told, but there is plenty room on the bandwagon for those who want to jump on board.

In a question and answer period, several locals told of recurring nosebleeds and of sore throats, colds and coughing that they and their children have been suffering through during the digging phase of the redevelopment project. Lennar dug down and hauled away a section of the hill 30 feet deep, stirring up huge clouds of toxic dust. One excited citizen jumped up to exclaim that AIMCO, the owner of hundreds of apartments near the Shipyard, was replacing the siding on homes again. Another person told him, “You know why, so they can hide the evidence.”

As I slowly left the church still reviewing all the important information that had been passed on, one of the young children on the back pews jumped in front of me to go outside with his playmates. He was lovingly reminded that he should say excuse me to one of his elders. I looked at his smiling angelic face as he slowly repeated the words, “Excuse me.”

I thought, “Can anyone say excuse me to this young one if they had the chance to protect his health and said or did nothing about the situation?” The day of excuses is over. It was over for my father a long time ago. I hope it’s not over for this community. A line has been drawn and everyone has to decide what side they’re on. Either the side for life or the side for death.

How you can get involved

The next town hall meeting is Thursday, May 24, 6 p.m., at Grace Tabernacle Community Church, 1121 Oakdale Ave. Outreach mobilizations – neighbors going door to door to discuss the poisoning – are being held most Saturdays at noon, also from the church. Call (866) 475-6907 often to stay updated on meetings and events.

A representative from state Sen. Carole Migden’s office invited calls to (415) 557-1300 to register complaints.

Sam Drew is a poverty and race scholar who graduated with honors from POOR Magazine’s Race, Poverty and Media Justice Institute. Visit POOR at www.poormagazine.org.