‘Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not toxic’

by Sam Drew, Poor News Network

I glanced at my watch as I sauntered into San Francisco City Hall. I was 20 minutes early for the hearing on environmental justice and the “redevelopment” happening in the Bayview that was set to begin at 1 p.m. I was sure I was going to find an open seat, being that most hearings are sparsely attended by the community.

As I entered the meeting room, I was pleasantly shocked that no seat remained open. The room was overflowing with eager community members, and nervous electricity filled the air. The many people forced to stand, like myself, looked on hoping someone would get up to the use the restroom, leaving an open seat.

I could see that the mayor of San Francisco, the Lennar Corp. and the Board of Supervisors had deeply underestimated the Bayview Hunters Point community’s determination to win justice and their deep love for their community. Energized and informed citizens sat ready to delineate to the Board of Supervisors their charges of toxic malfeasance at Parcel A at the Hunters Point Shipyard.

But before the meeting could officially start, a law enforcement officer, citing the fire code, bellowed that anyone standing up had to move to Room 250. There I found the huge room – the Supervisors’ chambers – unbelievably packed as wellI worked my way to a corner seat near the television to watch the hearing.

District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell informed the overflowing crowd that they should respect each other’s opinions. She seemed nervous to see so many people in attendance; most were her constituents but not her supporters.

I’ve attended two of the town hall meetings held every Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Grace Tabernacle Community Church on Oakdale at Ingalls in Hunters Point, a stone’s throw from the Shipyard. In my experience, the only opinions not being respected at City Hall are those of the community.

For nearly two hours, representatives of the mayor, the Lennar Corp., the Department of Public Health and the Redevelopment Agency delivered their opinions as if they are the ultimate authority. According to the powers that be, Lennar’s massive construction project – involving for the past year the massive excavation and removal of a 30-foot deep portion of the hill to build 1,600 high-end condos separated from the existing community – is safe and going according to schedule at the Hunters Point Shipyard. But, thanks to the research, observations and testimony of community residents and leaders, nothing could be further from the truth.

Supervisor Chris Daly called for the temporary halt of construction at the Shipyard so an independent entity can access health problems that have arisen from the toxic dust that Lennar’s excavation work has stirred up. “I put the health of our people first,” Daly declared. “We work for the people of the City and County of San Francisco.”

Dr. Mitch Katz, head of the Department of Public Health, said: “Bayview Hunters Point has legitimate concerns about health issues. … They have higher rates of asthma, higher rates of certain cancers [and] there are a number of important environmental health issues in the Bayview that have been longstanding.” But Dr. Katz didn’t blame Lennar’s Shipyard redevelopment project. “We don’t believe this particular project is the cause of bad health in the Bayview,” he stated.

When it was finally time for the people to speak, Minister Christopher Muhammad, leader of the fast growing movement in the community against environmental racism, delivered an opening argument worthy of a great jurist. Read a transcription of his speech in this issue of the Bay View, and watch all the testimony at http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=12; under archives, choose the July 9 Land Use Committee hearing.

Then citizen after citizen, each with his or her own brand of passion and eloquence, spoke to the problems they have encountered since Lennar began grading the hill. “I’ve developed bronchitis, headaches and rashes,” said Vivian Donahue. “I’ve never had headaches. We are being killed and nobody cares, we need them [Lennar] to stop now and protect our children. We are crying out to you. Please help us.”

“I have several friends who have died from asbestos, died from inhaling asbestos. Don’t let any of these people tell you it’s not toxic. I have complained about all those trucks with all that dust. They bring it through our neighborhood with no cover,” testified Bayview Hunters Point resident Estelene Stancil.

And Valerie Tulier, an ally from the Mission, told the Supervisors emphatically, “Stop spending so much time, energy and resources fighting the community.”

The people’s testimony, limited to three minutes each, continued without a break for nearly three hours. All who came to the mic, many testifying for the first time at City Hall, spoke the facts and feelings welling up from their hearts. Only four had anything good to say about Lennar, and they spoke without enthusiasm.

After hearing from the community and city officials, Supervisor Sandoval opined, “The city is trying to dodge a bullet to keep this project going. There are problems of credibility. Every week something new happens, and 200 to 250 people show up.”

The truth is this fight isn’t over. This was a hearing, not a vote. Miami-based Lennar is a multi-billion dollar corporation with friends in high places and won’t be easy to stop, but from what I saw at this hearing, Lennar is in for the fight of its life. I bet after this hearing, they won’t make the mistake of underestimating the community again.

Sam Drew is a PNN staff writer. Read more about issues of poverty and race written by the people who face them daily at www.poormagazine.org.