Site 12, Treasure Island’s toxic bullets: Someone’s about to get hit!

by Carol Harvey

Is Treasure Island radiation making Jim ill? Jim Serrano talks about the illnesses he’s been having since he moved onto Treasure Island: polycythemia, a form of leukemia, unidentified liver disease and constant pain. He attributes some of his sickness to radiation releases on toxic Treasure Island.

Think of Treasure Island as an iridescent green glowing ghost ship whose prow divides the blue waves as it navigates San Francisco Bay waters gliding northwest under the Golden Gate Bridge. On the tidy front lawn of your market rate or low income Site 12 rental brought to you courtesy of The John Stewart Co., it is as if you are standing at the bow of the radioactive vessel as it carries its toxic contents ever forward into a stunning red-gold sunset. Imagine the vessel sliding toward Japan bearing the U.S. Navy’s gift of Treasure Island toxic soup to mix with irradiated ocean water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, perhaps detectable along the California Coast by April 2014.

On a recent warm spring night, I walked to the Berkeley side of Site 12 by the fire training station, plopped down in a chair in the Fat Grape Winery next to a sign reading, “Group therapy practiced here,” and, over a glass of delicious, red, sulfite-free cabernet sauvignon, sat shooting the breeze with vintner Patrick Bowen.

“Patrick, I have to give you credit for having Fat Grape signs everywhere,” I said.

“I have a lot of signs,” he replied laughing. “How else can you find me? I’m in the northwest corner of Treasure Island inside of an old prison. This is the Navy Brig.”

Treasure Island Elementary School class 2005-2006Patrick is one of several small business owners who are as friendly as his Site 12 neighbors. Later, when I lost my way to Gateview Avenue to catch the 108, an African-American elder with a kind of awesome gentility noticed my confusion and offered directions. It’s a small town. Everyone knows everyone. Site 12 people are friendly to neighbors and strangers. It’s remarkable how they take care of and love each other.

The Site 12 community seems warehoused on extremely valuable, dangerously poisonous property. These sweet people, bombarded from every direction by radionuclides, chemicals, and asbestos, lead and mold contaminants, appear to be placeholders until Lennar can populate the island with condos for 19,000 high end renters.

Potentates’ political pawns

Some speculate Site 12 residents are pawns in a political game officiated over by power-brokers so high in the stratosphere, you and I will never see them – a viperous nest of incestuously connected wealth – Nancy Pelosi, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Darius Anderson, Bob Berkel and Mayor Ed Lee, who finally did the deal for a Treasure Island eco-village.

Interests connected to TIDA, the Treasure Island Development Authority, a mysteriously-formed corporation that runs the island, have raked in millions from rent – but plan to make billions.

Institutional classism

TIDA’s public relations brainchild, Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIHDI – say “tie-die”) offers compassionate services – a food bank, subsidized housing and job placement – to low-income, pre-homeless, homeless, disabled and “recovering” San Franciscans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA condescension-tinged message smacking of institutional classism traced by a finger in wet cement outside TIHDI’s Ship Shape Community Center, which hosts a weekly food pantry, at 850 Avenue I, orders supplicants to stand behind a line outside and “Wait here until called.”

Under the TIDHI umbrella, Swords to Plowshares offers vets “transitional housing.” One veteran reported he knew about the radioactivity. How? I asked. He answered, “The water tastes nasty.” There is a fine irony in the Navy’s offering a vet, recovering from a failed attempt to medicate war-induced trauma with drugs, a recovery place saturated with opportunities for radiation sickness, chemical poisoning, asbestosis or black-mold-induced respiratory illness.

Toolworks’ attractive webpage offers prospective employers a disability “workforce.” Community members, however, report working low-level jobs involving little skill-building or training.

Meet Walter Johnson, an enterprising and busy man. After prison, he sprung himself from a homeless shelter, to a job, to free housing into paying his own rent. Now he works, and, in his free time, helps distribute food to Treasure Island families through the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. After that, he exercises at the Treasure Island YMCA.

A community of poor people is living in buildings left to ruin. TIDA and TIHDI seem to be warehousing impoverished people in an aging, neglected infrastructure. The homes of people residing in buildings constructed in the 1940s and 1950s are literally making them sick.

There are suspicions that lead or heavy metals leaching from inside aging pipes could have caused a rash of gall-bladder removals. Childhood respiratory diseases are rampant.

As they sicken and die, low incomes trap and intimidation paralyzes them. Some fear that complaints about 70-year-old water pipes or black mold in bathrooms might lead to retaliatory evictions by subsidized housing “benefactors” at Catholic Charities, Community Housing Partnership, San Francisco Housing Authority or by The John Stewart Co., the market rate rental master.

A community of poor people is living in buildings left to ruin. TIDA and TIHDI seem to be warehousing impoverished people in an aging, neglected infrastructure. The homes of people residing in buildings constructed in the 1940s and 1950s are literally making them sick.

TIDA and naval personnel have said that redevelopment will change all this. One gets the sense infrastructure is being neglected because those in charge believe it will all be plowed under anyway.

Pandemonium, Mordor, fires

Embedded within Site 12’s 90-acre body like cancerous tumors lie three major subsites, Halyburton Court, Site 31 and Site 6. Under a mandate in the Federal Installation Restoration Program, the Navy has for years been forced to locate and remediate radioactive and chemical contaminants from these three Site 12 locations. The work is scheduled for completion by 2018.

Treasure Island map color coded Sites 12, 6, 31, Halyburton CourtAfter the Navy abandoned the area as an ammunition bunker and storage yard, many Site 12 structures sit dilapidated, bearing lethal levels of three more toxins: Asbestos, lead and mold, as an added bonus, lurk in Site 12 roofs, exterior paint and interior building walls.

On March 7, 2014, San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi announced he was evacuating firefighters from Station House 48, 849 Avenue D at 10th Street, to new quarters at the fire training facility, 600 Avenue M. The firefighters union complained that rain through leaky windows had created such dangerous levels of black mold in the station’s interior walls that men were getting headaches and waking up at night. Asthma, chronic congestion and respiratory diseases have also been reported widely among townhouse residents nearby.

Neither the Navy nor TIDA has stated officially it is attending to the cleanup of these additional dangerous substances, which pose a serious public health risk to people living and working on Site 12.

Halyburton Court – Pandemonium’s radiation poisoning: Situated at Treasure Island’s southeast end, Halyburton Court hosts phantom children trapped forever in silent trauma. A father of a 1970s military family shudders recalling the innocent play of children as their bodies were bombarded by radioisotopes along the shoreline near the highly radioactive USS Pandemonium I. (Pandemonium is the capital of Hell in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”)

Halyburton Court is so toxic that after the Navy decommissioned it in 1997, it was cordoned off and San Francisco’s new low-income residents were never allowed in.

Site 31 – Mordor: In 1999, civilian families began to populate Site 12. Just inland, eastward from Halyburton Court, kids from the nearby elementary school and Boys and Girls Club began to take play periods and run track on a large asphalt area on Site 31.

Treasure Island, aerial view, webAround 2005, this lighthearted exercise stopped. The Navy fenced off the space, dug a 10-by-40-foot-deep pit at its southeastern end and began carting out truckloads of tarp-covered toxic and radiologic material. Radioactive dust and possible chemical contaminants blew from the trucks into adjoining neighborhoods around the Gateview Avenue and 11th, 12th and 13th streets.

Ocean winds gusting from the northwest to the southeast off the Bay across Halyburton Court and Site 31 through a toxic tunnel toward the Oakland Bay Bridge’s span seem to have killed all the trees and vegetation along a narrow wind-lane over a former elementary school, a vacated Boys and Girls Club and an operating daycare center.

Subsite 6 – setting fires to put out fires: Behind a chainlink fence on the northern border of Site 6, across Avenue M from the island’s wastewater treatment plant, the Navy continually moves a conveyor-belt-like trail of thousands of large boxcar-shaped containers full of radiologically toxic materials. As of May 2013, these containers were shipped off-island to a nuclear dumpsite in Clive, Utah.

Site 6 is also historically significant as the locus of a 1950s fire training school, where toxic oil-based materials that firefighting trainees employed to snuff out blazes were casually dumped in its soil.

Additionally, in 1969, USS Pandemonium I, the Navy’s fake nuclear war training ship, was moved from her western position at the Halyburton Court area around the Island’s northern shore eastward into its second incarnation as USS Pandemonium II.

Navy simulates atomic bomb blast over Treasure Island 1957 by Bill Young, SF ChronWhen the Navy docked the ship next to the seismically unsafe water treatment plant built in the 1950s, her radioactive discharges were left to affect a second Site 12 sector, especially dangerous in the event of earthquake or water rise which could flood the area with both raw sewage – not good – and radioisotopes and chemical contaminants – infinitely worse.

Fifty years of Naval activity polluted Site 12 with a horrifying list of radioactive materials. Breathing, touching or ingesting any of these substances will continue to produce ionizing radiation that can create enough energy to break apart and re-bond with atoms inside the human body. These processes can go on for years deforming tissue and causing cancers.

In addition, the Navy is responsible for the below list of radioactive materials, chemical contaminants, as well as asbestos, lead and dangerous mold in air, soil and groundwater under and within Site 12 homes.

List of horrors

In 2001, at an international convention in Stockholm, Sweden, a treaty was signed banning the production, import, export, disposal and use of “the dirty dozen,” a group of 12 chemicals the United Nations considers the world’s most dangerous pollutants. These are aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), hexachlorobenzene, dioxins and furans.

Of these 12, eight – DDT, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), Benzenes, dioxins, furans, heptachlor, dieldrin and endrin, both components of dioxin – are currently present in Treasure Island soil, water, air and structures.

DDT, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane: Inhaling the pesticide DDT leads to long-term kidney and liver disease, cancer and short-term death.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls: While Naval personnel waffle on the cause of Site 12’s astronomically high PCB levels, Jim Serrano and his family live with his painful liver disease every day on Bayside Drive. Environmental Protection Agency studies found PCBs highly suspect for liver and skin cancer. Used as transformer, capacitor and electric motor coolants, PCBs were banned by Congress in 1979.

Fifty years of Naval activity polluted Site 12 with a horrifying list of radioactive materials. Breathing, touching or ingesting any of these substances will continue to produce ionizing radiation that can create enough energy to break apart and re-bond with atoms inside the human body. These processes can go on for years deforming tissue and causing cancers.

Benzene: Benzene, a carcinogenic constituent of crude oil and gas, is a widely used petrochemical solvent. My father would not have chain-smoked or used a benzene-based spot remover, Renuzit, to dry clean his suits had he known it caused leukemia. In an orgy of industrial burning, the Navy sent oil-generated benzene fumes boiling out into Treasure Island air from burn pits and incinerators in and above Site 12 soil where homes currently exist.

Over time, benzene remains in dirt as soot, continuing to emit fumes, especially as high island water levels dissolve dry benzene soot in wet soil.

Scientific evidence proves that benzene weakens the immune system and causes leukemia, aplastic anemia and breast cancer. Inhaling benzene vapors can damage reproductive organs and produce infertility. At least one Treasure Island teenager has recurring ovarian cysts. Residents, present and past, have reported miscarriages and hysterectomies.

PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Through the 1970s, PAH-laden smoke wafted across Treasure Island homes as sailors routinely set fire to a wide variety of materials in burn pits and incinerators in multiple spots around the island. PAHs consist of hundreds of carcinogens, products of incomplete burning of coal, gas and garbage, tobacco or charbroiled meat released as soot or attached to fine particulate airborne matter, settling in soil or on surface water. Touching or breathing PAHs mixed with other chemicals appears to cause skin, stomach and lung cancer.

Treasure Island residents Pandora and her grandchild, webDioxins, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins: In the worst five of “the dirty dozen” world’s worst chemicals, dioxins include a class of 75 chemically stable, organic proven carcinogens, produced when the Navy burned waste containing chlorinated plastic – IV bags, gloves or oxygen tents. A burn pit was discovered recently on Bayside Drive near a family suffering severe health effects.

Dioxins’ chemically stable, organic pollutants store persistently and permanently in the food chain and in children’s fatty tissue, especially females. As their bodies convert it to growth material – bone, muscles, tissue, brain – it is eventually passed into their offspring. Ingested by eating over-heated meat, dairy products, fish and shellfish, dioxin is suspect in liver, lung, stomach, soft tissue and connective tissue cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the weakening of the immune system. Dioxin is a hormone disruptor producing genetic defects, reproductive and developmental problems.

Arsenic: Arsenic is found in herbicides and pesticides. Made notorious by film director Frank Capra and actor Cary Grant in the black comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” arsenic is mixed by two old women into their elderberry wine to perpetrate mercy killings on lonely old men, although the rather unmerciful symptoms include stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, vertigo, delirium, shock and death. If they had survived, they’d have died of cancer.

Lead: Lead-based paint can be seen chipped off the exterior walls of many abandoned Navy buildings – structures built in the 1940s and ‘50s roughly 30 years before 1978, when the U.S. government banned lead paint. Teens play in the yard next to a tuition-free charter high school, the Life Learning Academy, at 651 Eighth St., immediately west of a long row of buildings on Avenue M covered with old, badly flaking paint fragments blowing around in the island’s high winds. Exposure to lead’s heavy metal component could damage their nervous systems and kill their brain cells.

Radium 226: Painted on glow-in-the-dark “buttons” buried in Treasure Island soil to be found by naval trainees with geiger counters, radium 226 is a highly unstable radioactive element which decays into an inert gas called radon. If built up in lung tissue, Radon could cause cancer.

TPH, total petroleum hydrocarbons: Fossil fuels, petroleum distillates and natural gas can suffocate people in high concentrations, cause nausea if swallowed and tissue swelling and edema if inhaled. When burned at the former fire training station on Site 6, TPHs caused soot to form in soil. With the raising and lowering of the island’s high water table, TPH soot may have sunk into groundwater. This was a subject very much under discussion during the March 12, 2014, public meeting covering the Navy’s Remedial Action Plan Proposal.

'Treasure Island Your Recreation Destination' sign, webVOCs, volatile organic compounds: Open burning can expose people to harmful volatile organic compounds causing respiratory and heart problems, eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, incoordination, nausea, and central nervous system, liver and kidney damage.

Cesium 137: In the 1950s, highly radioactive cesium137, a byproduct of nuclear fission, was released in a Building 223 accidental nuclear material spill. It’s all over the playgrounds. It is highly radioactive and very dangerous. A shorter half-life of 30 years makes it a stronger emitter, throwing off radioactive atoms faster. Yet it is persistent in the environment and works its way up the food chain.

Bullets from all directions

When there are so many variables, it is almost impossible to win a legal battle by drawing a straight line between its environmental cause and a disease. In this case, the gap has been narrowed by multitudinous environmental hazards. Anyone living in Site 12 over a year who escapes illness could make a killing in Reno. Bullets are flying from so many directions, not being hit is unlikely.

Occupants wonder why the Navy has not provided empirical data with a longitudinal study of former military occupants’ current health status. They are the population in whom the more severe symptoms would be surfacing now. Do they fear what they will find? Kathryn Lundgren believes they do.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at