by Carol Harvey
Just last summer, June 4, 2015, in an Al Jazeera article headlined, “SF gentrification pushes lower-income residents into radioactive areas,” journalist, Toshio Meronek wrote: “The Hunters Point Shipyard and its annex at Treasure Island were once used to clean boats returning from nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific. Now they will soon be the sites of much-needed affordable housing stock in a city where high demand and speculation have produced explosive gentrification and displacement.”
Meronek points out that San Francisco city government sees both Navy bases as central to its strategy to house lower-income residents. “On Treasure Island, more than a third of the population is formerly homeless,” Meronek writes.
These happy assumptions of the promise of low-cost toxin-free housing for San Francisco’s middle- and low-income and poor, Black and Brown people on Bayview Hunters Point and Treasure Island are called into serious question by the environmental racism and classism that federal, state and city officials, the Navy and the Lennar Corp. leveled at the disadvantaged purported recipients of affordable housing on both former bases long before redevelopment on either base began.
After the recent horrible revelation of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, water and its irreversibly toxic effects on children, scrutiny is being focused on the longstanding nationwide problem of environmental racism and classism. In 1987, the seminal study, “Toxic Wastes and Race,” written in the wake of the Love Canal disaster, revealed a pattern of “widespread presence of uncontrolled toxic waste sites in racial and ethnic communities throughout the United States.”
It is no surprise that poor, Black and Brown people live closest to the most heavily polluted urban areas, at the centers of cities clogged with auto exhaust, close to heavy industry and power plants. Unlike people with means, they cannot afford to move out and away to the greener pastures of smaller suburbs and feeder cities.
When I first walked across the small island, a wasteland of low industrial-type buildings, oil drums and a wastewater treatment plant, Treasure Island reminded me of slums in Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Los Angeles. But overarching this desolate landscape was a wide cerulean blue sky, delightful views of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco and energetic whitecaps lashing the riprap.
In San Francisco, environmental racism took a curiously unique turn. During World War II, Bayview Hunters Point experienced a boom. In the 1940s, Black people moved to San Francisco from the more virulently racist South for jobs at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
When a thriving Black Fillmore community, rivaling Market Street as a business center, replete with its own bejeweled Victorian homes and banks, visited by renowned musicians playing equally famous jazz clubs, was ripped away by redevelopment, many Black people fled to Bayview Hunters Point. But during the “war effort,” courtesy of the U.S. Navy and unknown to the community, people building bombs or dumping test animals into landfills were routinely exposed to radiation and chemicals. Already, the sunniest San Francisco neighborhood had been poisoned.
Later, in the Bay on Treasure Island Annex, from the 1950s to the ‘70s, Navy instructors were teaching sailors to wash radioactive cesium-137 from the deck of the U.S.S. Pandemonium One, a mockup naval vessel. This fake ship sat on the San Francisco side of the island. It was a landlocked structure built slantwise across Gateview Avenue long before homes for military families were constructed there.
A Navy memo describes 11 pieces of cesium-137 being routinely raised and lowered from lead enclosures inside the Pandemonium. Cesium can result in decreased appetite, nausea, diarrhea, neurological changes, heart problems and cardiac arrhythmias. People I know on Treasure Island exhibit all these symptoms.
It does not seem to concern the Treasure Island Development Authority, the Navy or Lennar that people currently live in the Pandemonium One footprint at 1314 and 1315 Gateview Ave. When I videotaped the street in March 2015, a smiling Asian teen exited one of these addresses and strode toward me across the radioactive front lawn. Her white fuzzy puppy dashed up and bounced playfully around my knees.
Lennar plans to build housing here over radioactive soil that, despite the Navy’s claims to the contrary, can never be removed. Cesium has a half-life of 1,600 years. Radiation is called radiation because it radiates. That’s forever.
The fact that plutonium’s half-life is 24,100 years becomes important when one looks at the opposite Berkeley-Oakland side of the island. The Navy’s one-story RADIAC schools along Avenue M contained what a 1982 base radiation safety memo described as large sources of plutonium, tritium and cesium.
Exposure to powerful plutonium can give you lung, liver and bone cancer. Over-exposure to tritium can increase your cancer risk, cause genetic and reproductive defects and developmental abnormalities.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The post-World War II Cold War era was over. Congress began discovering military overspending, and bases nationwide closed.
In 1974, the Navy pulled out of Hunters Point Shipyard. Twenty-three years later, in 1997, it decommissioned Treasure Island.
In 1989, after discovering PCBs, solvents, pesticides, petroleum hydrocarbons and lead on the Naval Shipyard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site.
For a long time, even before the Navy left but was still functioning at a reduced level, it leased out unused old buildings and warehouses. Many people who worked there over the years died of cancer.
Initially, in the early ‘90s, the Shipyard was divided into lots that people were encouraged to buy for their home or business, developing the Shipyard the way the rest of San Francisco grew, lot by lot. If you could afford what was projected to be a moderate price, you could go to a little office that former Supervisor Willie Kennedy staffed, view a map and select a piece of property to purchase once the Shipyard was clean.
The Navy began to hold Restoration Advisory Board meetings to update the community on cleanup progress. Through Navy spokespeople and handouts – but more importantly through the dogged and heroic research and reporting in the Bay View by Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai, who headed the RAB’s Radiological Subcommittee – the extreme danger posed by proximity to powerfully poisonous radiation and chemicals dawned slowly upon the Bayview community.
Little had been known about the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, the U.S. military’s largest nuclear research facility, once secret, and their experiments that filled an enormous landfill on what’s now known as Parcel E with the radioactive waste, including irradiated large farm animals, and all manner of industrial toxins. The community’s years of demands for its removal have been refused.
The Unholy Quadrinity – UQ4
What I have termed “The Unholy Quadrinity” behind the redevelopment of former naval bases Hunters Point and Treasure Island is a four-in-one entity comprised of:
1) The corporate state – federal government officials Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Navy Secretaries Ray Mabus and Hansford T. Johnson;
2) State and city mover and shaker former Mayor Willie Brown channeled by his later mayoral incarnations, Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee;
3) Corporate mega-developer Lennar, represented by Kofi Bonner of Lennar Urban, bedding down with both; and, on Treasure Island,
4) California’s largest corporate slumlord, John Stewart, an only slightly smaller demon slinking behind the other three, represented on Treasure Island by Property Manager Dan Stone.
Together they comprise a four-headed beast I call the Unholy Quadrinity – UQ4. UQ4 thrives in an incestuous rat’s nest of financial nepotism, kickbacks and palm-greasing.
State and city politician Willie Brown grabs the power
On Oct. 14, 1997, Gov. Pete Wilson signed state Assembly Bill 699 into law, putting authority over the development of Treasure Island into the hands of a “panel” handpicked by colorful longtime state assemblyman and city mayor, Willie Brown.
To ensure he could control what became the Treasure Island Development Authority Board (TIDA), Brown fashioned it to consist solely of mayoral appointees.
Willie had set his sights on Lennar to be the developer, so other competitive bidders somehow vanished.
The federal monster – incest is best
Laurence Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s nephew by marriage, is Gavin Newsom’s first cousin and served as treasurer for Newsom’s first mayoral campaign. In March of 2004, simultaneous to the time Mayor Newsom and Speaker Pelosi pushed the Navy to transfer Shipyard Parcel A and Newsom signed the Hunters Point Shipyard Conveyance Agreement, it did not hurt that Laurence Pelosi was head of acquisitions for the Lennar Corp.
Early in her political tenure, Nancy Pelosi envisioned her financial advantage in pushing the city to acquire from the Navy the three newly closed Bay Area bases: The Presidio, Hunters Point and Treasure Island. She worked closely with congressional and naval friends and former Mayor Willie Brown to achieve this goal.
Massaging her military and naval connections, including former Marine and Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha (now deceased), Navy Assistant Secretary Hansford T. Johnson and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Pelosi acquired conveyances. On April 1, 2004, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Parcel A, still toxic, was officially turned over to the City and County of San Francisco in what all parties knew was a “dirty transfer,” and on Aug. 18, 2010, the Navy returned equally contaminated former Naval Station Treasure Island to the city.
The terms of the Treasure Island conveyance made transparent all parties’ agendas. In addition to the city’s guaranteed payment of $55 million to the Navy, followed by an interim payment of another $50 million, “an additional share of potential further profits” from high-end condos with bay and city views was promised. From the podium at the ceremony on Treasure Island, Pelosi triumphantly thanked them all, but especially Mayor Willie Brown sitting before her and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, for preserving the land – presumably for her.
Weeks before the Navy relinquished Hunters Point Parcel A, its Radiological Affairs Support Office (RASO) raised doubts about safe residential development there. Investigators had unearthed radiological contamination in hundreds of buildings, the entire storm, drain and sanitary systems, dry docks and the soil.
Despite these cautions, Pelosi pressured John Murtha to push the deal through, “twisting his arm,” she said at the time. He was not at all comfortable with transferring dirty land for people to live on.
Enter Lennar, the ravenous corporation that reneges
In 1954, Lennar began as a small Miami, Florida, home builder and by 2016 it has morphed into a corporation universally described as a mega-developer, one of the country’s largest.
When the military closed vast swathes of land on its bases, Lennar leapt on the opportunity, carving its niche into an unexpectedly lucrative target market. Lennar needed gigantic holdings so they could impress financial entities from whom they could borrow against large tracts of land.
In 1997, Lennar became master developer for Vallejo’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard.
In 1999, Lennar won the Hunters Point bid following an approval process addressing toxic cleanup, impoverished populace displacement worries and transportation needs.
In 2001, Lennar won the rights to redevelop Treasure Island, even before it broke ground at Hunters Point.
In 2003, the parent company spun off Lennar Urban to focus on military-base reuse.
In July, 2008, CNN and Orlando Sentinel news stories exposed the discovery of a 23-pound fragmentation bomb two feet under the dirt of the upscale Warwick subdivision, complete with elementary school, the kind of community Lennar plans to build in the Hunters Point Shipyard and former Naval Station Treasure Island. Children were evacuated while munitions workers searched frantically for – and found – ordnance used during 1940s military training.
According to the Sentinel, “The ‘frag’ bomb – designed to shatter its metal shell upon detonation – is among a long list of munitions used at the site during training in the 1940s. Other ordnance includes bombs up to 500 pounds, rockets, rifle grenades and incendiary bombs designed to ignite super-hot chemical fires that are difficult to extinguish.”
On the Consumeraffairs.com internet site, a Nov. 4, 2015, statement by Randy of Winter Garden, Florida, was typical of page after page of protracted complaints by people who had bought homes built by Lennar in multiple states. “This company… duped a whole new community with shoddy contractors, poor purchases, a community pool that is falling apart within a year, lies and deceptions in sales practice … (It does) not take responsibility when (the) contractor forgets to ground a home, blowing out most of the electricals.”
After Lennar promised to be responsive to the Bayview Hunters Point community’s needs, it built on the irresponsible lack of concern by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at the federal level and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown locally for massive toxins about which the Navy warned. Secondly, Lennar consistently displayed racist and classist behavior in the casually brutal ways it treated the mostly African-American community.
First, during the spring and summer months of 2006, Lennar allowed its contractor, CH2M Hill, to violate conditions in the Bay Area Air Quality District’s Dust Mitigation Plan by using gigantic earthmovers to slice 35 feet from a neighborhood perched at the top of a hill covered with beautiful old trees and attractive, usable Navy homes.
In the process, they released asbestos fibers from the serpentinite bedrock native to Hunters Point. In the process, they exposed children at the Muslim University of Islam just across the fence to toxic dust containing elevated levels of asbestos, particulates, lead, manganese, chromium, nickel and arsenic. Many residents in the densely populated surrounding neighborhood reported nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, asthma, cancer and infant mortality.
Some believe the agenda in chopping down the hill amounted to a racist “apartheid” attempt to create a grade separation between white people in Lennar’s upscale development and the poorer Black community of Hunters Point. Residents view as racist Lennar’s complete disregard for health and safety, especially of the children, in repeatedly violating the few regulations the Air District imposed on it and for years defying air monitoring requirements, despite incessant protests by residents and activists demanding they stop kicking up massive amounts of toxic dust.
In fact, people checking monitors found empty, nonfunctional boxes. One fake monitor had nothing but a rat’s nest inside.
Some believed Lennar intentionally ignored the monitors to avoid work stoppages mandated by high toxicity readings, prioritizing its rush to profit off development over human health of residents and its own workers. Some are convinced that this activity amounted to casual disregard for the health of people that, based on their race, Lennar considered expendable.
One community member insisted, “It was racism that caused Lennar to cut the hill down, and it was racism that caused them not to care that we were poisoned by them doing that.” Lennar claimed to be working in the best interests of the community, but the mega-developer made it obvious that “they really didn’t care at all about the community unless we forced them to.”
When three African American Lennar executives approached Lennar about dust regulation violations that were poisoning the workers they supervised and residents of one of the last remaining African American communities in San Francisco with levels of asbestos so high they mandated 15 work stoppages in the summer of 2006, they were racially harassed, demoted and fired. When Angela Alioto’s law firm took their case under FEHA, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Lennar quickly settled. Said one community member, “Even their own inside executives knew they were covering people unmonitored with dust, and they still kept doing it.”
Finally, Lennar went back on its promises for low-cost rental housing, reneging on its affordable housing agreements. On April 17, 2007, Beyondchron.org, editor Paul Hogarth wrote, “Lennar … has a bad track record of broken promises when it comes to affordable housing.”
He pointed to Orange County, where Lennar forced low-income families who won an affordable housing lottery to make a down payment of nearly 50 percent of the purchase price, rendering them unable to afford the below-market-rate properties.
“In Oakland,” wrote Hogarth, “Lennar dropped plans to build 850 units of housing downtown because the city might require some of them to be affordable.” And in Hunters Point, Lennar broke its promise to build 400 units of rental housing – because the rental market was not “profitable.”
In November 2006, claiming weakened financials and rising construction costs when the corporation lost its financial footing after the banks failed, Lennar reneged on its agreement with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency that it would include 700 rental units on the 500-acre site, saying rentals were now a losing investment. Its reduced commitment, which includes constructing 1,600 condos and townhouses, remains in effect today.
Lennar’s track record in Bayview Hunters Point clearly demonstrates a pattern of offering assurances they will provide poor, Black and Brown people affordable housing and rentals, then finding ways to renege on their promises and kicking them out. This has already been done to the fairly well-off and middle-income Yerba Buena Island residents.
The Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIDHI) guarantees affordable housing for subsidized tenants as part of island redevelopment, and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim recently made a bid to up Treasure Island affordable homes to 40 percent of the planned new construction. Lennar’s Kofi Bonner rejected it.
Despite this, there are no guarantees. Lennar’s track record at Hunters Point clearly shows that such moves come to nothing. In San Francisco, people of moderate means, the poor and the homeless – who, during the Superbowl, will be housed in a big metal barn – are clearly in the way and expendable.
If Lennar will commit these environmental injustices against Hunter Point’s low-income, poor and people of color, they certainly won’t hesitate to perpetrate them upon the people of Treasure Island without blinking or rolling over in their sleep.
(To be continued in Part Two)
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at email@example.com. She composed the headline of this story with a nod to journalist Sarah Phelan, who wrote the San Francisco Guardian’s March 14, 2007, cover story, the seminal study on Lennar, “The corporation that ate San Francisco.”