How the Navy made Treasure Island a radiation dump, then promised to clean it up and didn’t

Join the people of Treasure Island for the next RAB meeting Tuesday, Aug. 19, 7-9 p.m., Casa de la Vista, 191 Avenue of the Palms, Treasure Island

For Mason, Terrell T-Rex Gucci, Luciana, Auxie, Quinn, Gabe, Nestor, Praise, Stefania, Tarot, Sierra, Asjenal and Justus

by Carol Harvey

Part One: We all got in a room, and we’re, like, where can we find more information, historically?

Foreword

Halle Berry as Storm in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
Halle Berry as Storm in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

“We were born with extraordinary powers, abilities, the next stage in human evolution.” Recently released, “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” is the saga of an attempt to prevent a human and mutant extinction event. The genius telepathic mind of Professor X – Charles Xavier – travels to the Nixon era through Wolverine’s mutant consciousness. There, Xavier confronts his past self. “Please,” pleads Xavier, “We need you to hope again.”

The film asks: Have humans murdered hope? “Is the future set? Can we change our fate?”

Perhaps kids gaze past their parents’ denial into the future taking for granted we’re changed forever. Who knows what manner of creature our species is becoming? What adolescent collective subconscious spawned re-runs about teenage turtles who mutated into – er – ninjas? (Reputedly, this one’s a dud.)

Like the X-Men championed in film extravaganzas, will we develop superpowers? Or, maybe, like Rachel Dratch’s Saturday Night Live humanoid, our head will sprout an arm.

When scientists in the bowels of the University of Chicago or the Los Alamos desert split the atom enabling Harry S. Truman to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the tiny building blocks of human DNA were permanently altered. Suddenly, in the ‘50s, after atom and hydrogen bomb testing, a frantic world sought cancer cures.

Radiation fragments atoms

Decaying radioactive materials produce ionizing radiation. The most common are alpha and beta particles, or gamma and x-rays. An ionizing radiation charge jolts electrons out of atoms and fractures chemical bonds. Broad atomic destruction occurs in human tissue. The body’s attempts to repair itself produce cancer cells and birth defects.

Through long-term observation of uranium miners, Japanese atomic bomb blast survivors and Bikini atoll nuclear fallout victims, scientists learned that people who worked with, or were exposed to, radioactive material developed cancers or mutations.

But not generations of Treasure Island residents who are living with radiation from ships at Bikini. Though the Navy has the data, it never conducted longitudinal studies of adults and children it “impacted” with radioactivity.

Dave’s ‘HRASTM’

On June 25, 2014, Radiation Cleanup Project Manager Dave Clark was lit by a San Francisco Bay sunset penetrating Casa de La Vista windows. As he introduced an overview of – wait for it – the Navy’s 2014 “Historical Radiological Assessment Supplemental Technical Memorandum” for the Treasure Island Restoration Advisory Board, I doubt he was thinking much about kids. But, as I videorecorded his talk and edited 35 minutes of footage, these pesky miniature human beings popped up everywhere.

Lead Project Manager Dave Clark
Lead Project Manager Dave Clark

If you’re a San Francisco taxpayer, you’ll want to know about the toxic treasure you’re buying. The wider Bay Area is affected, too. As the Fukushima disaster makes clear, radiation doesn’t stay put.

From my first row spot behind the camera, I could see that Dave’s task was huge.

He promised that an online copy of the 2014 “HRASTM” – “Tech Memo,” for short – would be available by July. “There’s a lot of information in the document. This is an overview just to give you an idea of what’s going to be in there. Once you all get it,” urged Dave, “bring on the questions. We’ll have future meetings and discussions on whatever your specific issues are.”

The next “future meeting” is Tuesday, Aug. 19, 7-9 p.m., Casa de la Vista, 191 Avenue of the Palms, Treasure Island, and there will be more such meetings to attend.

The next RAB meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 19, 7-9 p.m., Casa de la Vista, 191 Avenue of the Palms, Treasure Island, and there will be more such meetings to attend.

As the lead project manager on former Naval Station Treasure Island, he had a lot of field work and research under his belt, and he knew the subject cold. Plus, Dennis Kelly of Tetra Tech was there to back him on details.

At his back stood Keith Forman, the Navy’s environmental coordinator; at his right, the seven-member environmental Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), citizen council to the Navy on cleanup. To his left, state Water Board and Department of Toxic Substance Control members peered across a table.

Dan Stone, John Stewart property manager, had descended from his Yerba Buena Island catbird seat over the Bay Bridge. Next to him sat a few of Dave’s technical buddies.

In the audience hunkered the “usual suspects,” the same old disgruntled residents Dave expected.

But, as he looked out over the sprinkling of attendees – complete with videographer; that would be me – he saw none of the 500 children who inhabit the island.

Snapshots in time

Clarifying some acronyms for the audience, he neglected HRASTM.

HRA means Historical Radiological Assessment. This 2014 “snapshot in time” shows how the Navy made Treasure Island a radiation dump, then tried to clean it up. STM means Supplemental Technical Memorandum; the Navy updated it and appended more stats. They completed two previous HRASTMs in 2006 and 2012.

Dave and Dennis: Historical Radiological Assessment references

Clark presented a long list of resources the Navy searched and studied to find evidence of radiological “hot spots” on former Naval Station Treasure Island. Clark introduced Dennis Kelly of Tetra Tech, a remediation contractor for the Navy. Clark credited Kelly with doing the major portion of the historical research.

Navy searched folks who lived Treasure Island history

For the 2014 HRA, Clark said, “We all got in a room and we’re like, where can we find more information about Treasure Island historically?”

“This is sort of the no-stone-left-unturned philosophy,” said Clark. They talked to people involved in the 1950 radium spill in Building 233, photographers and engineers who designed and oversaw military housing construction. Dave Kelly did extensive internet research on the “foils.” (Of foils, more in Part 3.)

Navy insists grading alone pushed toxins into the Site 12 housing area

Radiological object removed from beneath Building 1101 slab, summer 2014
Radiological object removed from beneath Building 1101 slab, summer 2014

The understandably irritated resident contingent knew that up until 2012, after the Navy had lumped along for years not finding much – all the while reassuring them there were few radiological dangers – two investigative reporters invaded the island with geiger counters and unearthed a piece of soil that registered spiking radiation levels.

The California Department of Public Health, charged with protecting Californians from environmental poisons, stepped on some heels. “You aren’t digging deep enough, Navy. Try harder.”

Dave did confess, “It’s been a long time, maybe too long.” He then downgraded the scandal to minor kerfuffle status, noting the CDPH “became interested.” Though he promised to do his “best,” Clark brushed quickly through ways the Navy radiologically impacted the island. He said they did it mainly through “operations”  – dumping radioactive waste into sewers – or “training” – sailors washing radium 226 from a mock ship.

CDPH had advised the Navy their survey of Site 12, where people live, provided insufficient information. The Navy’s housing and historical solid waste disposal areas, otherwise known as burn pits, were located in Site 12. “What was going on there?” CDPH asked.

“Mostly,” Clark admitted, “what was going on there is the grading,” hot objects shoved out of burn pit dirt, probably by bulldozers, when the Navy constructed military housing on Site 12 in the 1960s.

When the housing was constructed, material was pushed in the soil from the perimeters where the Navy has identified the known solid waste disposal areas “to various spots within the housing area.” Clark called this “the big thing.”

Lo and behold! In late 2013-2014, radioactive stuff began to surface from lawns. Dave referenced a radiological object removed from beneath Building 1101 slab on Bigelow Court during summer 2014.

Technobabble

The Navy famously grinds out lengthy reports. To avoid re-spelling technical terms while wading through this weed-garden of verbiage, they created sweet little acronyms: HRAs, SWDAs, LLROs (Low Level Radioactive Objects). Technobabble like impact, background, data gaps investigation, unlicensed sources, rad and foil impart a scientific shine.

‘Impacted’

Dave defined “impacted.” His screen trumpeted, “A rad impacted site is an area with a possibility of containing residual radioactivity in excess of natural background.” Translation: “We think there may be radioactivity at that spot, so we’re going to dig in there and find out what’s up.” Dave emphasized “possibility.” Never admit it’s radioactive.

Unfortunately, Dave used “impacted” as both adjective and verb. Adjective: “The impacted building was entered.” Verb: “We’ll impact the building and scan for radiation.” Some irritated people want to impact the Navy hard on the nose – and not just for this foggy definitional delivery.

‘Background’

The technobabble term “natural background” clouds things. The Navy’s schizoid “background” definition often refers to non-ionizing radiation, say, from microwaves. Other times, the Navy’s definition implies ionizing radiation that slams human atoms with effects too minimal to hurt them. “Above-background radiation” appears to mean ionizing radiation carrying a charge strong enough to knock electrons from atoms and harm human tissue. This, however, is a contradiction in terms. When human atoms are smashed with any level of energy, breakage happens.

Ionizing radiation emanates from natural and artificial sources. The earth’s crust, atmosphere, cosmic rays and radioisotopes produce the greatest annual exposure.

Artificial radiation comes from chronic sources – medical x-rays, smoking, air travel – or high exposure events: nuclear weapons testing and nuclear accidents.

People close to traumatic high exposure quickly sicken and die. Distance protects you.

Robert Frost’s poetic line about “happiness” cannot be changed to “Radioactivity makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” Both duration and height bring danger. Chronic low level contact with radiation, like that being experienced by today’s Site 12 residents, is as death-dealing as sudden high exposure, merely slower.

EPA sets torturously conservative danger limits: “(H)ealth physicists currently estimate that overall, if each person in a group of 10,000 people [is] exposed to 1 rem of ionizing radiation, in small doses over a lifetime, we would expect five or six more people to die of cancer than would otherwise.”

No one has set an effective lowest danger mark on background ionizing radiation. “Above natural background” is an artificial term. Because it breaks things, all ionizing radiation is foreground.

Chronic low level contact with radiation, like that being experienced by today’s Site 12 residents, is as death-dealing as sudden high exposure, merely slower.

Bring radiation levels back to where they were before they dropped the bomb

Since Hiroshima-Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima, experts have arbitrarily tweaked background tolerance levels to market radioactive goods. Kathryn Lundgren pointed out that, following the Fukushima disaster, U.S. former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t announce a boycott of Japan’s radiation-contaminated fish, 65 percent of which tested positive for cesium.

U.S. food safety agencies simply raised acceptable radiation levels. As this happens, the frog is boiled.

More technobabble: LLROs, Low Level Radioactive Objects, will smash your atoms just as fast as high level radiation will. Either way, your atoms are being smashed.

Since Hiroshima-Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima, experts have arbitrarily tweaked background tolerance levels to market radioactive goods.

Historical slices

To organize his snapshot in one slice of historical time, Dave subdivided his Powerpoint outline into standardized HRASTM subsections, repeating the same material up to three times: key topics, field work, summary, conclusions, findings, areas of interest.

To help you wrap your brain around the Navy’s historical impact, I will organize the island into three – no, four – easily grasped geographical sections based on Dave’s over-complicated format. This division throws classist-racist red lines into relief. (Part 2 of this series will cover the “other two thirds” and how it impacted Part 3, the Site 2 neighborhood.)

Slice One, the ‘bottom two-thirds’: What the Navy did to the ‘bottom two-thirds’ that impacted Site 12 residents

Site 12 is color bordered; the “bottom two thirds” of the island is what’s left.
Site 12 is color bordered; the “bottom two thirds” of the island is what’s left.

The Navy’s heavily “impacted” area made people in Site 12 sick.

A smelly wastewater treatment plant festers at the far end of the area Dave called the “bottom two-thirds,” a decrepit eastern segment filled with the Starburst Barracks – a 1970s Naval dorm – storage tanks, tattered ‘50s-style lead-painted wood structures, light industry rentals or abandoned buildings bearing asbestos warning signs.

Dave said his “common sense evaluation of the bottom two-thirds of Treasure Island” – everything outside of Site 12 – told him, when the Navy took over from the 1936-1939 Exposition, they demolished old buildings and built other things. Photographs illustrating building history told Dave “there wasn’t a lot happening.”

Au contraire, my good lead cleanup guy! You neglected to mention what you know. Sometime in this section’s history:

  • The Navy maintained at least two radiation storage drums.
  • A 1950s fire training school leaked dioxin-producing petroleum.
  • A Hangar 3 optical shop spilled radiation into sewers.
  • Ships returned from Operation Crossroads nuclear tests to dock outside hangar 3 exuding fallout.
  • In Building 233, at Avenue M and Third, in January 1950, the worst radiation spill in island history, occurred, but the building was left standing until 2011.
  • West down Avenue M, the Navy erected three RADIAC training school buildings where radionuclides were stored in bunkers for instrument maintenance and calibration courses.
  • Finally, the Navy transferred from one Bayside location to another a fake ship from which sailors washed radioactive waste.

Slice Two, Site 12: How Site 12 residents got ‘impacted’

This far western section of Treasure Island, a residential area of 2,000 people – some ill, extends from Ninth Street to the northern riprap perimeter facing the Golden Gate. For Dave, all evidence substantiated Site 12’s sole function as a Solid Waste Disposal Area (SWDA) – an open field where the Navy set everything imaginable ablaze in several burn pits and, after San Francisco complained the air was being polluted, one big-ass incinerator.

Then, as Dave previously confessed, “It’s all about the grading.” They irradiated Site 12 by pushing hot objects outward from this enormous disposal area during military housing construction. Evidence, however, treated in Parts Two and Three, indicates the presence of radioactive objects in Site 12 soil from a far wider variety of sources than merely grading.

Slice Three: Holes

Finally, Dave isolated “holes,” areas fenced or covered by buildings like the old fire station at 10th and Avenue D. He decided no toxic activity was conducted in “holes.” The Navy won’t impact them.

My conclusion: ‘Impact’ the whole damn island

Since the Navy saturated the entire island with not just two – but over 20 – types of radiation, over 20 types of chemicals, as well as asbestos, mold and lead, all of which are seriously compromising peoples’ health, they should “impact” the entire place.

Slice Four: Little silver sliver

Though he was standing on it, Dave ignored a crescent-shaped slice of land near the Bay Bridge Willie Brown span whose east border begins with Clipper Cove at the 108 bus entrance and ends on California Avenue, one block west. This shining little land sliver is the least radiologically impacted, safest, cleanest, most beautiful part of the island. It is the only “treasure” most island employees, Job Corps students and the public ever see.

There, sunset photographers stand below Building One, a 1936 Exposition relic. Inside this graceful curved monument you’ll find executive offices for Mirian Saez, Treasure Island Development Authority director, Navy Remediation Coordinator Keith Forman, and Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIHDI) employees overseeing 2,000 subsidized households. When not grabbing takeout from the Treasure Island Bar and Grill next door, this elite seems secluded in their stone paradise.

During a promotional video travelog aired on PBS by KVIE’s “Rob on the Road,” cheery, petite Mirian Saez enumerated marvels found on this shining wedge:

  • Building One – moderne art deco
  • Mirian Saez’ office with paintings of the Golden Gate Exposition (But, you don’t get to go in there.)
  • One Naval history mural
  • Six World’s Fair statues
  • Two restaurants
  • A yacht club
  • A sailing school
  • Nimitz Chapel – Admiral Nimitz Orchestrated WWW II Pacific theater battles.
  • Artists’ studios where Marco Cochran constructed “Bliss Dance,” a 4-story dancing woman sculpture for Burning Man, now sitting on the island’s Great Lawn
  • A flea market
  • Five wineries
  • Island Creative, a production company
  • Great views
  • Rock concerts
  • Pavilion by the Bay – proms, parties, weddings
  • An ornate key to the island presented by Gov. Schwarzenegger
  • A small World War II armament: “The Gunnery Thing”

Mirian Saez’s ‘gunnery thing’

Mirian Saez shows “Rob on the Road” host Rob Stewart the squat miniature cannon left by the Navy that Mirian Saez claims can shoot 18,000 feet, all the way to Oakland.
Mirian Saez shows “Rob on the Road” host Rob Stewart the squat miniature cannon left by the Navy that Mirian Saez claims can shoot 18,000 feet, all the way to Oakland.

Back to the kids.

During the KVIE video, Mirian Saez, with bright, chirpy exultations about this wonderful island, walks us to a small squat miniature cannon. She remarks to TV host Rob Stewart that the Navy moved out in ‘96, leaving such armaments “hangin’ around.”

“And it fires 18,000 yards,” enthused Rob.

Saez joked, “We can reach Oakland with that range.”

When Treasure Island whistleblower Kathryn Lundgren and I strolled sun-blasted Clipper Cove, she observed that kids climb on that “gunnery training thing.

“A teenage boy is going to be like, ‘I’m a gunner!’

“It shouldn’t be accessible to children. There’s rusted metal parts on it.

“Also, it’s just – ugly! If you’re going to keep it out here as some kind of icon, then frickin’ repair it. Paint it – I don’t know – a pretty daisy yellow. I mean, stick a flower in the end. Make it cool.

“It’s really annoying. It’s like, ‘We’re so proud of this thing we abandoned. But, hey, when it’s useful …’”

In the video, Mirian Saez points out that only this little sliver and the abutting 300 acres of the island’s eastern coast will be redeveloped. The architects have designated the rest – Site 12, the Navy’s radiation dump – for parks, gardens and places for people to “recreate.”

The reason: Site 12 is so toxic no one can live there – except for thousands of low-income people who from 1999 to the present moved into old moldy, asbestos-filled military housing. Two thousand souls live there now. What about them?

Which prompted Kathryn Lundgren to remark: “It’s just like the people. We’ll abandon them when we don’t need them anymore.”

Well, what does TIDA need them for? Infrastructure placeholders? Rent?

For some reason, I thought of all the kids on Site 12.

Site 12 is so toxic no one can live there – except for thousands of low-income people who from 1999 to the present moved into old moldy, asbestos-filled military housing. Two thousand souls live there now. What about them?

Postscript: The young island people I have come to know are so savvy, so funny, so smart that maybe, just maybe – like the mutant icons Hollywood created to supercharge teen film sales – they can survive and find a way to come back and fix the things we broke.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com. This story will be continued in Parts Two and Three.