by Carol Harvey
Subsite Halyburton Court
Situated at Treasure Island’s northwest corner on Site 12, Halyburton Court consists of a small cluster of vacant 24-unit apartment buildings that, from the 1970s to 1996, housed military families.
Considering all possible contamination sources, it is noteworthy that from 1957 to 1969, before Halyburton Court was built, the Navy operated a radiological training school just south along the perimeter facing San Francisco, where Gateway Avenue and Westside Drive homes now stand.
In 1956, between the site of that now-vanished instructional facility and Halyburton Court, the Navy fashioned from salvage a 173-foot mock-up training ship. In retrospect, it was aptly christened the USS Pandemonium, because it does indeed continue to generate uproar in Treasure Island lives. Kathryn Lundgren says the ship is “like a poorly fashioned amusement park ride, designed for the Navy’s amusement and our terror.”
In 1957, Naval Command set radiological warfare to full sail. All hands flooded on deck learning to scrub radioactive contamination off the fake ship’s surfaces. Until 1963, students equipped with monitors were taught to locate powerful radioactive cesium-137, but in later years, instructors used radioactive isotopes with shortened half-lives. Radioactive wastewater not spilled on the ground was collected in large tanks until it was considered weakened enough to be siphoned off through a pipe into the Bay.
Navy records before 1999 indicated no problematic chemical levels, but later soil tests disclosed PAHs and PCBs at 19,000 parts per million, far exceeding the EPA’s acceptable standards of .22 ppm.
For years, the Navy has resisted disclosures of more than low-level radiological “impacts.” Matt Smith and Katharine Mieszkowski reported that, for the first time in an Aug. 6, 2012, draft report, the Navy admitted “that a school preparing sailors for nuclear warfare might have left behind radioactive residue.”
Whether radiation residue or chemical contaminants continue to emanate from soil or water in the area, Halyburton and Bigelow Court next door are so toxic that, in the late ‘90s after military families moved out, the Navy fenced them both off, and San Francisco’s low-income transplants were never allowed in.
Jim Burres, Naval electronics instructor, was among the first of Treasure Island’s military inhabitants. From 1966 to 1967, he attended Navy Training School there while residing at Midway Village, student quarters near the Cow Palace.
During his duty watch at the ersatz ship USS Pandemonium, Jim watched sailors washing radiation off the deck while kids played on the beach nearby.
In 1968, Jim served at sea on the cruiser USS Bennington.
He brought his wife back to Treasure Island in 1970, where he taught electronics. Jim’s family resided at 1238E North Point Drive in Site 12, during a time when the firefighting school was operational. He told me that, “in the (old) firefighting school, they scraped dioxin off the walls.”
On Sunday, March 30, 2014, after he read one of my Treasure Island articles published by the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, he left the following voice mail:
“Carol, my name is Jim Burres. I live in Oregon. … I lived on Treasure Island in 1970 to ‘72 with my wife and three children, two of whom have had to have female surgery. My wife had a heart attack, and I’m diabetic, and my son was born with an open tailbone.”
Making the appropriate connections between his family’s illnesses and birth defects and the radiation and chemical contamination they had suffered, he began to research the Navy’s culpability on Treasure Island.
Jim reported that, between 2003 to 2006, he remembered the Navy shoveling “dioxin-laden contaminated dirt” near the water line from the deepest, most toxic hole they were forced to dig.
A few years ago, he contacted former Navy Base Closure Environmental Coordinator Jim Sullivan, pressing him about the Navy’s radiation and chemical remediation program. He told Sullivan, “Are you kidding me? You didn’t do any survey of those houses for either (radiological or chemical) contamination. The crap came in on the feet of the sailors and the family members and the children playing out there.”
In its second phase, the USS Pandemonium I became Pandemonium II. In 1970, the craft was relocated to her new position at the northeastern shore near the present site of the wastewater treatment plant, toxifying yet a second part of Site 12.
Kathryn Lundgren takes us on a toxic tour through radioactive Halyburton Court.
Halyburton Court today
Since 1997, after the Navy decommissioning, when the military families exited the island, signs barking words like “Notice: Controlled Area” have designated Halyburton, and Bigelow Court next door, off-limits to the public. In February 2014, when Kathryn Lundgren and I videotaped the site, she stated, “In the Channel 2 investigative report, they mention this as being one of the hottest spots on the island.
“This is also where squatters come and live because they can get in here and not be seen (or) identified.”
Particulate matter alone can cause lung problems, but radioactive particulate matter exponentially spikes the danger. Neighbors worry about radioactive dust from trucks and digging equipment blowing about and ending up in their yards.
I videoed a large earthmover inside the fence near Halyburton and Bigelow Court’s toxic buildings, and Kathryn offered me her own footage “of them mowing the lawns back here … and kicking up the dust.”
She said they dumped into front yards the wood chips from trees they felled.
“They’re actually taking … the vegetation that they cut down and carrying it back … in front of our homes. So, it’s not a matter of them doing it and being careful. They’re not careful at all.”
Green dust fencing seems to appear and reappear capriciously around island hot spots. Kathryn testified that the fence covers we filmed were hung there at her urging after she showed officials her earlier footage to document dust problems.
“They put (covers) up, but the wind just kicks (them) up or tears (them) down.”
Treasure Island authorities swear that when the trucks dig dirt out of Halyburton Court to be “dumped on the eastern side of the island,” the vehicles are covered. Kathryn insists, however, that when they leave “it’s just a tarp over the top,” and the vehicles return uncovered.
It’s a community concern. “These trucks are coming out the other side down Gateview Avenue, which is the main road for everyone. One slip-up, one piece – it only takes one atom, and that atom never disappears.”
And, while Treasure Island sinks into the Bay about one foot a year, tides force the water table up through the soil.
Poking her boot down into the soggy grass and mushy dirt under our feet, she said, “Some of this stuff is really pretty flippy here (meaning, you can fall over walking through it). The cones are wet from sitting in it. So it’s obviously a problem that the water table doesn’t stay far enough down to where it can’t affect us.”
She peered through the mesh fence at pools of water on an old concrete court. Such flooding brings up whatever toxins are absorbed into her or her children’s shoes. Inevitably, everyone drags contaminated groundwater into the house.
This reminded me of the January 1950 incident in which a 40-mg radium spill occurred in a Building 233 laboratory on the eastern side of the Island. Navy records showed that unsuspecting people carried the radionuclides on their shoes out of the building and into their cars, and that, 60 years later, as recently as 2010, California Department of Toxic Substance Control official Remedios Sunga expressed concern about radioactive residue left in the soil beneath the razed building.
I talked to people who stop in their cars after work every day to catch the stunning sunsets. With that kind of toxicity, one asks oneself what radioactivity do the frequent Treasure Island visitors carry off the island every day as they step out of their vehicle into their own driveway and walk into their home?
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at email@example.com.