by Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter and RM Arrieta
San Francisco – At a Health Commission meeting Tuesday, Bayview Hunters Point residents and supporters accused the San Francisco Department of Public Health of turning a blind eye to Lennar Corp.’s toxic construction at the Hunters Point Shipyard. They told the commissioners of their shock to learn the previous day, July 14, that air monitors had recorded an enormous asbestos exceedence of nearly 140,000 particulates on May 30, four days before the June 3 election.
They charged that Miami-based Lennar, one of the nation’s largest – and most financially troubled – home builders, while digging into asbestos-rich serpentine rock, is sending plumes of cancer-causing dust into nearby homes, recreation centers and schools. Last November, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) voted to fine Lennar for not accurately monitoring toxicity levels during construction.
California state law requires Lennar to monitor the toxicity of the air, inform residents and stop work when asbestos or other carcinogens reach a poisonous level. However, May 30, when asbestos meters sky-rocketed to a staggering 138,800 particulates, community members were kept in the dark. Bayview advocates say the release far exceeded levels deemed lethal, even by the city’s lenient standards: 16,000 particulates – or structures – per cubic meter of air. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
Hunters Point residents suspect that the reason they were not informed of the exceedence until more than six weeks later is that the toxic reading came just days before the June 3 election, when a heated battle was taking place over Prop F, a grassroots community initiative that would have forced Lennar to make at least half of its new housing affordable. Lennar is the City’s official Master Developer in charge of redevelopment of the Hunters Point Shipyard, one of the country’s most contaminated federal Superfund sites.
Lennar had placed a competing initiative, Prop G, on the ballot to grant the huge home builder permission to proceed with the construction of 10,000 condominiums at the Shipyard and nearby Candlestick Point. Lennar spent $5 million to pass Prop G, which contained no commitment to affordable housing.
“Such an overage should have triggered a complete removal of those most sensitive receptors, which would have been our children,” declared Bayview resident Marie Harrison of Greenaction, an environmental justice organization, as she addressed the commissioners.
Minister Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam spoke ardently about the environmental racism and classism the Department of Public Health conveys when it chooses to “stand by and ignore the health of Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and poor white people.”
Octavio Solorzano, an 18-year-old resident of Bayview Hunters Point, spoke about the serious health problems he has endured from breathing in the toxic dust. Solorano tested positive for asbestos and mercury in his blood last year after his GPA fell from a 4.0 to a 1.87 during Lennar’s construction.
Shockingly, some of the public health commissioners said they were not informed about the asbestos problem at the Shipyard and the controversy surrounding Lennar’s construction. They called on Department of Public Health Director Dr. Mitchell Katz to prepare a presentation on Lennar’s activities in the Shipyard at their next monthly meeting Aug. 5.
“For the director [Katz] not to have debriefed the four new commissioners about the impact that the dust has had on the community reflects the lack of attention paid to the people of Bayview,” charged Minister Muhammad.
Activists with Bayview’s Stop Lennar Action Movement (SLAM), a coalition of individuals, religious groups and social justice organizations, have been calling for the Department of Public Health to support a hearing on Lennar’s environmental impact for almost two years, but Katz claimed that asbestos levels in the Bayview were not as dangerous as they might appear. It is “normal,” he said, for a child to have nosebleeds and asthma.
At Thursday’s weekly town hall meeting, Minister Muhammad told the large community gathering of Lennar’s reaction to the May 30 exceedence, as described by the Health Department. Upon learning of the monitor reading of 138,800 asbestos structures, the company submitted a sample for analysis to a private laboratory, which found the far lower number of 23,000 structures. In its report, the lab described the sample Lennar submitted as “unusually clean.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos fibers can have serious effects on your health if inhaled. There is no known safe exposure to asbestos. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.”
To research the harmful affect of asbestos, visit www.epa.gov/asbestos/. To get involved and learn more about Lennar’s actions in Hunters Point, come to the town hall meetings every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Grace Tabernacle Community Church, 1121 Oakdale Ave., just outside the Shipyard in San Francisco.
Rebecca Ruiz-Lichter can be reached at email@example.com. Bay View staff contributed to this story.