Part 4: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids

by Carol Harvey

Chemically and radiologically polluted Treasure Island water causes gastrointestinal illness

Liz Washington caught her breath in shock.

The social worker phoned. “We’re taking custody of Chris and Michael.”

Liz-Washington-points-out-stinky-drain-9th@Ave-B-Treasure-Island-by-Carol-Harvey1-300x156, Part 4: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, Local News & Views
Liz Washington points out the stinky drain at Ninth and Avenue B on Treasure Island. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Is this a recurring nightmare?

She was plunged into flashbacks. In 1999, Child Protective Services sent cops to snatch her kids because she was homeless. In 2005, they ripped away Sandra, Chris and Michael, claiming her Treasure Island townhouse was messy.

Eight years later, May 1, 2013, without warning, this unsuspecting mother’s teenage sons were again abducted. Reprising the endless litany of flimsy excuses, ignoring the boys’ obvious 15-year exposure to hazardous toxic island waste, CPS accused Liz of medically neglecting their gastrointestinal diseases.

The worker seemed relentless. “We’re removing them from your care and placing them in a foster home.”

Liz was caught off guard. She believed their father, who shared custody, had accompanied Chris and Michael on the bus to school. Instead, he took them to San Francisco General Hospital.

The CPS worker informed Liz the father was “argumentative” when he resisted doctor’s orders to hospitalize his sons for “cleanup” (bowel dis-impaction). The physician decided that the father’s demand for a second opinion constituted refusal of medical treatment. On his orders, the CPS worker took custody in the hospital.

Guilt by association

Liz was not present, “had no idea what was going on,” and had not resisted her sons’ procedure. The social worker, nevertheless, thrust her into a situation caused by the father. The official San Francisco District Court complaint – by mistake or design – bundled her with the dad.

After a week’s stay, the boys were transferred to foster care in Oakland.

Liz fought hard to retrieve them. They were not returned until Sept. 26, 2014, a year and a half later.

The irony of this institutional child theft was that, after four months living off-island, despite a heavy fast food diet, the boys got better. Their stomach aches and painful constipation slowly dissipated.

For Liz, the common denominator was that they were not drinking polluted island water. When they returned, so did their stomach aches.

Gastrointestinal disease

Along with severe breathing problems, Liz’ family endures intractable stomach and lower intestinal pain and constipation. Her sons suffer most with upper abdominal distress, nausea and vomiting. In their lower intestinal tract, they endure bleeding, cramping, diarrhea, chronic constipation and obstipation. Obstipation – severe, obstructive constipation – has required hospital admission for colon flushing, especially distressing for teenage boys.

Child Protective Services, working with San Francisco General Hospital and UCSF Medical Center doctors, have consistently blamed Liz for her son’s constipation.

To meet physicians’ demands that she serve her family more fruits and vegetables, she stepped up everyone’s produce intake. During Chris’ and Michael’s eight-year struggle, Liz has “tried everything” – special teas, apricots, prune juice, enemas and laxatives.

CPS and medical professionals set impossible conditions. Doctors prescribe Ex-Lax and Miralax, which cause identical symptoms to the boys’ gastrointestinal problems: nausea, abdominal cramping, diarrhea and gas. Liz, however, risks losing her sons to foster care if she drops Miralax for larger portions of fruits and vegetables.

CPS threatens to take the boys if she keeps them home when they are sick. If she sends them to school, they go in severe pain. These catch-22 traps tell Liz that the boys’ health is not CPS’ priority.

No diagnosis, no testing

Medical providers have never produced an actual diagnosis.

A General Hospital doctor’s statement was appended to court papers saying Liz’ kids were in danger “health-wise.” “But,” Liz observed, “the doctor didn’t know what to diagnose them with? How can you claim they are in danger without a diagnosis?”

Since 2006, doctors “used the term ‘chronic constipation’ as if it was a diagnosis when actually it is a symptom,” said Liz.

“What angers me is there has to be something that had to make them end up having chronic constipation.”

Despite years of care, in 2007 General Hospital doctors flatly refused Liz’ requests for tests to discover the source of her boys’ constipation.

“You think the doctors are missing the boat,” I said.

“They haven’t even begun to sail on the boat.” Liz used a metaphor compatible with her water-logged island home. “We see boats every day. We can hear them while we sleep. Do they even know what a boat looks like?”

The real cause

After 15 years’ experience, Liz believes the actual sources of her family’s respiratory and gastrointestinal problems are Treasure Island’s polluted drinking water, chemical and radiological toxins, black mold and asbestos.

Don’t drink the water

Liz believes drinking polluted water causes her family’s nausea and constipation.

She took for granted her tenant expectation that management provide potable water “as safe as everybody else’s in the Bay Area.

“When you’re living here on the island, you’re hoping that you’re drinking water that is drinkable. We all drink the water,” she confessed. She never purchased filters or bottled water. For low income mothers, “That’s pretty much of a luxury,” said Liz.

Ancient holey pipes share toxic stew

The 76-year-old potable water and sewer pipes embedded in loose Treasure Island soil for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition are subject to rust, cracks and holes. These pipelines, lying beneath the dirt, can easily trade contents which seep from fissures into the connected network under the 576.7 acre island.

Fecal matter can mix with old petroleum, dioxin, DDT, lead, chlorinated chemicals like dry-cleaning fluid and PCBs as well as 26 kinds of radiation, all well documented to have been dumped into island soil by the U.S. Navy’s careless 56-year waste management program.

Arrival of brown water in kitchen and bathroom taps predicts pain and illness. This deadly stew renders the water dangerous. A permanent rash broke out on one woman’s back where she stood beneath water gushing from the shower head.

Along with her neighbors, Liz reports indelible dark rings in all three of her toilets. “A brown ring forms … almost impossible to clean.” A permanent light stain remains in the bowl. With continued flooding, the stain brightens again. “You’re scrubbing your brush to try to get rid of it. But it never goes away.”

“This says a whole bunch about this island,” Liz mused. “The pipes, the water – especially the brown water – it has had a huge effect on (my family’s) health.”

Did new sinkholes degrade pipeline integrity and potable water delivery?

During a Wednesday, May 20, 2015, community meeting, island director Robert Beck, announced Lennar Corp. would conduct vibro-compaction testing in a fenced-off area near Job Corps grounds between the Island Cove Market and the Starburst Barracks.

Lennars-Treasure-Island-vibro-compaction-by-Carol-Harvey-300x168, Part 4: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, Local News & Views
Lennar engineers used this vibro-compaction bore on Treasure Island which may have caused sink holes and broken pipes across the island and feces to flood into the Lundgren townhouse.

A week later, on May 28 and 29, 2015, that small piece of ground trembled. Subcontractor Jafec USA’s geotechnical engineers sunk four huge pulsating shafts 50 feet into liquefaction-prone fill.

These soil, groundwater and mud stability tests were conducted in preparation for island redevelopment. Shaking dirt particles into a tightly compressed mass, then compacting the dirt with pounders would forestall liquefaction, preventing high rise collapse.

Liz and Sandy believe Lennar’s vibro-compaction tests touched off cave-ins across the island from its southeast San Francisco vistas to the northwest Golden Gate Bridge views.

Seventy-year-old rusty pipes course through seismically unstable fill. Vibrating bores, like earthquakes, can cause loose dirt to slide into sinkholes or ancient embedded pipes to crack and leak.

Notorious stinky drain

Frequently over the last 10 years, when Liz walks two blocks east from her Avenue B townhouse to the park across Ninth Street from the Starburst Barracks, a noxious odor escapes from a drain in the grass and hovers for days in the park’s northeast corner. (See Part 3A.)

The arrival of this smell foreshadows brown water, toilet blockage and spillage. Bad water and new mold growth trigger dormant respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Stomach pains and constipation return with a vengeance.

On Wednesday, July 1, 2015, after the compaction test and boring, Liz reported brown water. We head toward the vibro-compaction site about half a mile away. Passing the Avenue B park, I videoed the stinky drain.

We crossed Ninth Street east to the overflow lot beside the Starburst Barracks.

At either end of a shallow 5-foot-long depression in the asphalt, two new sinkholes were combining into one. Water pooled in the indentation’s deeper end closest to Ninth Street. Walking east toward the barracks, Liz gestured with her foot. Perhaps to hide or plug it, someone had paved the sinkhole’s opposite end with concrete.

Following the wooden fence east between Job Corps and the Starburst Barracks, we stopped half a block west of the Island Cove Market and the vibro-impaction site. Along a trail of wet earth over obviously leaking pipelines, we came upon a third drain in a large circular indentation.

Treasure-Island-sinkhole-behind-Starburst-Barracks-after-vibro-compaction-0528-2915-by-Sandra-Washington-267x300, Part 4: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, Local News & Views
This sinkhole behind Starburst Barracks next to the Job Corps fence on Treasure Island formed after the May 28-29, 2015, vibro-compaction tests.

Two weeks after the vibro-compaction test, Liz’ daughter had photographed a deep sink-hole next to this drain, encircled with yellow police tape. The words, “broken pipes,” were spray painted in white beside the hole. By the time we arrived, maintenance had covered this previously documented sinkhole with asphalt.


Had aftereffects of the vibro-compaction spanned the entire island from Bay to Golden Gate Bridge shores, causing polluted contents of the island’s pipe system to boil over?

Had Lennar’s vibro-compaction tests exposed the submerged pipe system’s fragility and tripped off toxic leakage? Fractured pipelines sinkholes, soil cave-ins and sewage upsurges traversed the entire island, east to west from the Island Cove Market past the Starburst Barracks, the Ninth Street park, Liz’ Avenue B home, the old elementary school playground with a final blowout at Kathryn Lundgren’s Bayside Drive townhouse.

At the June 17 Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting the third week in June, long-term island resident Andrea McHenry advised the Navy that, immediately after the bores were sunk, foul smells and sewage puddles formed on the old elementary school playground where island youth practice basketball.

Andrea reported that on Treasure Island’s Next Door social network website, “a couple weeks ago during the pounding, people were saying that there’s sewage coming up in the school yard” “and stinky puddles.” Brown water was flowing out of faucets. Liz’ daughter reported spotting another sinkhole on the playground across Avenue E from the former school.

On Friday, May 29, vibro-compaction day, at 1201-B Bayside Drive, the Lundgren home near the northwestern shore facing the Golden Gate Bridge, pipes malfunctioned and smelly brown chocolate ooze exploded from faucets, toilets, shower heads and electrical outlets.

John Stewart’s property managers didn’t issue “Use No Water” alerts. When the family developed dehydrating diarrhea and flu-like symptoms, everyone thought they had food poisoning. Quinn, 16, “erupted with giant hives all over her face and her body.”

Over the next six weeks, two worsening sewage torrents blew from pipes.

On June 19, reported Kathryn, “Our upstairs bathtub, sink and toilet filled with raw sewage with [feces] floating in it.” Her daughter, Praise, discovered her dad face down, convulsing in the front yard.

A month later, July 9, 2015, raw sewage would not stop gushing “out of every orifice of the house, top to bottom, upstairs and downstairs, all over the floor.” Brown water flooded from faucets, shower heads, toilet bowls.

John-Stewart-Co.-maintenance-crew-dig-poss.-replace-sewer-line-outside-Lundren-apt-Treasure-Island-071215-by-Quinn-Lundgren-225x300, Part 4: She was homeless, so cops and Child Protective Services took her kids, Local News & Views
John Stewart Co. maintenance crew replacing old fragile terra cotta pipes on Treasure Island pipeline outside Lundgren townhouse at 1201-B Bayside Drive. – Photo: Quinn Lundgren

Excrement oozed from outlets, destroying a dishwasher, a dryer and a $700 washing machine. “We had basically a houseful of shit,” said Kathryn. Not realizing the brown water was biologically toxic, “everybody had their hands in it,” trying to sop it up with towels and clothes. After it ran clear, they concluded it was safe to drink.

On July 10, an advisory appeared on their door advising not to use the water.

On Monday, July 12, Quinn Lundgren photographed men digging in the street, replacing an old terra cotta “lateral” pipe.

“Think about this,” said Kathryn. “If the sewage came through terra cotta pipes, and (those) pipes come through soil, then whatever has seeped in there – i.e., radiological, biological and chemical hazards – has also flowed directly in the faces of my children.”

Lennar is required to follow San Francisco’s legally mandated environmental precautionary principle and halt tests until island-wide pipes are repaired.

Child Protective Service and the court’s wisest course is to place responsibility for Liz sons’ gastrointestinal illness where it rightfully belongs – onto the polluted water running through the broken, malfunctioning pipes that trade feces, chemicals and radiation beneath Treasure Island’s toxic soil.

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