Trapped on Treasure Island, Part One: Yet another Treasure Island renter wrestles the mold monster

by Carol Harvey

When Andrea McHenry confronted Treasure Island’s market rate housing property manager about possible toxic mold in her unit or pressed the Navy and Treasure Island Development Initiative (TIDA) officials with uneasy questions about radiation and chemical dangers, this island resident employed meticulously respectful restraint.

Andrea McHenry speaks at a Treasure Island community meeting. – Photo: Carol Harvey
Andrea McHenry speaks at a Treasure Island community meeting. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Andrea’s long professional life taught her a precise balance between tact and directness. But it also camouflaged her many years of compassionate activism.

In 2002, sitting in her rent-controlled apartment on Clement and 10th Street in San Francisco, she showed me footage of a Civic Center cop assault against volunteers feeding homeless folks.

“When the Food Not Bombs concept was drafted,” she confided, “I was there.” Her Food Not Bombs commitment lasted 15 years, as the group was harassed and persecuted for its life-sustaining work by City Hall in San Francisco and other cities.

She honed her calm reserve and tight grip on detail during a career as an executive administrative assistant for Goodwill Industries, United Way of the Bay Area and United Educators of San Francisco.

Simultaneously, however, during 12 years’ union activism, her United Way co-workers elected her shop steward in the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 3. Her team successfully bargained two three-year contracts.

Angel Island

A Fisherman’s Wharf Dolphin Swimming and Rowing Club member, Andrea is active in the direct sense. She swims a half-mile in open water several times a week. On Children’s Rights Day in July, she sailed to Angel Island with co-members who showed kids how they hoist sails on the Alma, a hundred-ton 120-year-old wooden sailing ship. That night, she hunkered down on deck in her sleeping bag under a super moon.

Clement Street

A San Franciscan since 1986, Andrea wants to stay in The City. For 16 years, Andrea enjoyed a Clement Street apartment in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco’s Little Chinatown. For $800 monthly, she had a three-bedroom flat – dining room, kitchen and back yard with sun deck.

“There was a flat above. Below were grooming and beauty parlors and a TV repair shop. Remember the repairman, Henry, an obsessive-compulsive clutterer and collector? He lived in a long, skinny shop below me piled with corroded electronic parts and could fix almost anything — irons, lamps, VCRs. But, his specialty was TVs. He had so many he worked on the sidewalk. I suspect he also ran a money-lending business out of there,” Andrea laughed.

Her landlord, Leland Barrett, had a “Nephew Frank,” who called Barrett “uncle” and his wife “auntie.” “I don’t think he really was any blood relation. He just buttered them up.” Six months elapsed before they told the tenants that Leland had died, leaving his ill elderly wife to manage the building.

“Nephew Frank” commandeered building renovations. Andrea, her roommates and pets suffered as Frank ripped out walls and ceilings, replacing electrical wiring, pipes and plumbing, the roof and windows. “After the building was up to code and nice to live in, we all got evicted, poor Henry first.”

Frank orchestrated an owner move-in by a large Korean family that bought the building. During a perfect storm of ill-fortune at the height of the dot.com boom, Andrea lost both job and home. “I was evicted while unemployed.”

Loss of her rent-controlled apartment priced Andrea out of the market. Though she scoured the city, “Prospects for finding a good, affordable apartment when you’re unemployed were zero when you have 60 days to vacate.”

Andrea moved into a friend’s Treasure Island townhouse. Signing over the lease, her friend relocated to Taos, New Mexico. “This is where I was forced to come,” she said sardonically.

“You know that feeling when you don’t like a place? I never, EVER liked this place. It’s toxic. It’s creepy. Is there a military base that isn’t?”

Despairing, trapped on toxic island

“I’m trapped and it sucks. Our lives are in danger. I must get out of here but can’t afford it. We are guinea pigs in a big radiological experiment. I know how the Alcatraz prisoners felt hearing the City’s sounds and laughter, but unable to be there. (Island management) is so slick at promoting life on the island, covering up the Navy’s mess and shushing us.”

Besides radiation and chemicals – additional dangers

“(It’s) not just radiological. There are the PCBs and the PAHs and the asbestos and the lead and the things that go BOOM in the night, (like) the fire that burned down a townhouse here and killed a 10-year-old girl.”

I don’t feel good

Like other residents, Andrea reported general malaise not endured in pre-island life. Despite physical activity, Andrea said, “I don’t feel good or healthy.”

Treasure Island toxins exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Her psoriasis worsened with chronic patches and intolerable irritation on legs and elbows. “I can feel my brain responding to the itching.” Mold and asbestos are culprits in islanders’ intestinal tract problems, including abdominal pains and stomach lesions.”

Andrea developed painful intestinal problems this year and has had to take two 10-day courses of antibiotics.

Improper toxic mold remediation

On June 18, 2014, Dan Stone, John Stewart “Villages” property manager, facilitated a community meeting. Andrea reminded 12 to 20 attendees, “I requested at the last meeting that we talk about black mold we’re finding on the island.”

Concerned about toxic mold in her townhouse, she said she spoke to Stone, who promised to replace her bathtub wall.

“My bathtub leaked through the kitchen ceiling. My bathroom ceiling was speckled with black mold. The mortar was black between the pink tiles,” she told me.

She said she contacted experts who advised, if black mold is even suspected to be present, do not release the spores.

Mold removal concerns expressed at Treasure Island community meeting June 18, 2014: This John Stewart “Villages” market rate housing Treasure Island resident tells community members and the property manager, Dan Stone, about the inept, dangerous way possible black mold was “removed and remediated” from her bathroom.

That morning, in her second floor bathroom, Andrea photographed John Stewart Villages janitorial and maintenance staff, apparently untrained in mold remediation and ill-equipped to do the job properly, ripping out the three walls abutting the tub.

“There were no containment procedures,” she told the group.

The bathroom door was open. The fan was on. They dragged garbage bags of debris and rotting, moldy wood down the stairs and set it on her front lawn. They didn’t clean up very well. They removed the micro-debris, leaving a trail of grit.

“I got pictures of lots of black mold. I and my roommates and this little dog I’m babysitting have been exposed, and who knows how many other people?

“It seems to me that’s a little ass-backwards. Pardon my French. I am really unhappy it was done that way.”

Said Andrea tactfully, “I wish we had tested for mold first, and if it was found to be the dangerous type, they should have hired a proper mold abatement professional to tear the walls out.”

Stone took no responsibility.

“If they chose not to test first, before workmen removed the wall and released spores,” said Andrea, “we should have been removed from the premises, and they should have reverse-pressure vented potential mold from the area.”

That afternoon, a different company replaced bathroom walls. She asked whether they knew they were being exposed to mold? “It does terrible things to your lungs and your body.” It can enter “through your eyeballs and other mucous membranes and go to your brain and make you brain damaged.

They responded, “We’re just here to put the bathroom walls up. We don’t know anything about that. We specified with management that we have nothing to do with demolition or removal.”

“They sprayed mold retardant everywhere, painted over the mold and sealed it behind acrylic ‘marble,’” said Andrea. Hours later, Andrea, a videographer, another resident, and this journalist observed a fresh coat of dimpled paint on the bathroom ceiling, hiding mold underneath.

Mold “removal” Treasure Island style in Andrea McHenry’s John Stewart housing bathroom in June 2014: This John Stewart “Villages” market rate Treasure Island housing resident describes the inept, dangerous way possible black mold was “removed and remediated” from her bathroom.

Like Gulf of Mexico oil dispersant, Corexit, mold retardants can be as toxic as the mold they retard.

“In the ensuing weeks, they were all over Reeves Court and other courtyards around here – on Ozbourne, Keppler, Hutchins, and Mariner Courts – everywhere I went. I was still dog-sitting my neighbor’s dog. When I walked her, those same guys were dragging bathroom walls into every vacant unit.”

They should have tested the air for mold before they tore out the walls. “The Villages management made sure that the mold test vendor (Indoor Restore) got here after they sealed it all behind the fake marble and paint and mold retardant spray,” she said.

Stone alerted the crowd defensively that he had responded to Andrea’s concerns. “You and I met today.” But, it was too late. Andrea pointed out that she, her roommates and the dog had already been exposed.

“Yes,” Andrea countered, “I know we had a big talk, and I know there’s a lot of hysteria and what-have-you about the many toxics on the island. But, I just don’t feel good about the way The Villages handled the remediation work in my home.”

Dan Stone, property manager, psychologist, doctor

During their “big talk,” Dan Stone had minimized residents’ mold concerns. Andrea paraphrased his psychoanalysis: “This whole mold thing is something the residents feel they can control; whereas, everything else is out of control. We can’t control the toxic waste, the PCBs, the PAHs and the other 20 or so known toxic chemicals out here in the soil, water and air. We can’t control the radiological waste that’s out here. We can’t control what’s happening with this development.

This is a picture Andrea McHenry took on her cellphone of some of the black mold around her tub that was neither tested nor properly removed and remediated.
This is a picture Andrea McHenry took on her cellphone of some of the black mold around her tub that was neither tested nor properly removed and remediated.

“But, all of a sudden, we residents have latched onto this black mold. We feel like we can control that, and that’s why there’s so much quote-unquote ‘hysteria’ about the black mold right now.

“‘Molds exist everywhere,’ insisted Dan. ‘Out in the lawn, all over the house, in the air, everywhere. When it gets to be too concentrated, some people are highly allergic. Most people breathe it in all the time without any reaction to it.’”

A fireman volunteer performing lung function tests at July’s Nursing Clinic opening informed this reporter that the most prevalent island afflictions, respiratory diseases and asthma, are far above normal for the small population.

Again, Stone attempted to reassure the crowd. “We (he and Andrea) talked specifically today about doing some testing after the repairs.”

Countered Andrea, “Yes. We’re going to do it, but, ass-backwards, again, pardon my French. They will test after the renovations, after the mold retardant has been sprayed, and after we’ve already been exposed.”

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com.