In tribute to Marie Harrison: Until our very last breath

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D., and Marie Harrison are absorbed in what they see on Greenaction’s “toxic tour” of Treasure Island on Oct. 17, 2018, to compare the Navy’s radioactive and toxic contamination there with that at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Prior to January 2018, when the story of massive eco-fraud at the Shipyard broke in the major media after the conviction of two Tetra Tech cleanup supervisors, political leaders and the media had debunked the alarms raised by neighborhood spokespeople, even though they included not only very knowledgeable activists such as Harrison but also Dr. Sumchai, a prominent medical doctor with extensive expertise in radiology, and other scientific experts. All their findings and warnings have now been vindicated, but the contamination remains on both parts of the old Navy base, Treasure Island and Hunters Point. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Memorial celebration for Marie Harrison will be held at noon on Saturday, May 18, at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, 825 Newhall at Third Street and Jerrold in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco

by Carol Harvey

Dear Marie,

This is goodbye, but only a temporary one.

I’m not the only person who needed to be with you in your chosen spiritual place to say “Au revoir,” “Until we meet again.”

But I needed to tell you that I wanted to be at St. John’s Church with your family, friends and colleagues to acknowledge that we will always be engaged together in this fight to which you had totally committed your life.

During Greenaction’s Oct. 17, 2018, bus tour for state EPA regulators from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) through toxic sites on Treasure Island, Marie cautions agency personnel that when they use their considerable power to determine acceptable levels of toxins at these sites, “any judgment that does not put people first is a bad judgment.” At Hunters Point, state and city agencies attempting “to determine how many lives were acceptable” made “a bad judgment.” As a result, at a spot in the Shipyard that regulators had determined had been clean for many years, a dangerous radioactive object was found.

You’re not going to be around. But you still need to know – or at least I need to confirm that I let you know – that, like you, we will continue fighting until we draw our “last breath.”

As you have spoken for us these past decades, you’ve been an especially effective, strong, patient and articulate voice confronting forces that do not respect human rights or human life. You’ve told these opportunists firmly and politely that every human being on earth has the right to live and raise their children and see their grandchildren thrive in pollution-free places and to breathe clean air without toxins – heavy metals, radiation, chemicals and asbestos.

We are reasonably certain that your exposure to these substances riding on particulate matter in the air you breathed at Bayview Hunters Point is what took your life. You put actions behind your words, chaining yourself to places, proclaiming, “We will not be moved.”

Marie explains how, in the past and up until today, the Navy polluted the water flowing through Treasure Island pipelines. Speaking during an Oct. 17, 2018, Treasure Island toxic tour, environmental activist Marie Harrison clarified how the Navy polluted the water flowing through Treasure Island pipelines with toxic radiation, chemicals and heavy metals rendering unsafe to drink all water feeding into Treasure Island buildings and homes and, in doing so, they neglected to inform residents that this happened.
At 0:29 into the video, she says, “I simply wanted to remind you that the water that is being supplied here (at Treasure Island) way before they (the Navy) started to (augment) the infrastructure and change them (the pipelines), (that) the (original island) pipelines were already in. The clay pipelines were in (place).”
Marie is stating that the original infrastructure, including the potable water pipelines, had been laid down immediately after the Treasure Island landform was constructed in 1939. These pipelines were installed to serve the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-1941. When the Navy took the island in 1941 to use as the Central Command for their Bay Area Naval bases, they left in place the existing infrastructure, including the original pipelines which were made of clay and wood.
Marie explains, “The reason they did the switchover is because they were pumping water into houses here, and the clay pipelines were cracking, and all kinds of stuff was floating in the water.”
She is referring to 1965, when the Navy built the first townhouses for sailors’ families at the back of the island, “they did the switchover,” meaning they ran new pipes, “pumping water into houses” from the original pipeline infrastructure, which they left in place. At this point, they could see that some of the early “clay pipelines were cracking, and all kinds of stuff was floating in the water.”
“So, technically,” Marie continues, “I can’t guarantee that all of them got changed. They (the Navy) only changed the ones (pipes) that were cracked and they could prove that water was coming in.”
She is emphasizing that only where the Navy could see that water was back-flowing from the contaminated soil through the cracks in the clay pipes did they convert some of these friable terra cotta and wood pipelines to sturdier, more impenetrable metal.
“My biggest issue,” she continues, “is that they didn’t notify the community that those (water) lines were already cracked and that contamination had already flowed through what they thought was clean, fresh water coming from Hetch Hetchy. It really truly was not. OK?
“And so I can’t guarantee that all those clay pipelines are not – so, as long as there’s no water bubbling or soaking the soil, making it (the pipeline) sink in (leaving a visible dent in the soil), they won’t go there and change those (pipelines) unless they’re going to build something there.”
“So there’s a possibility that residents are still drinking water from a line that was already cracked and broke. It’s just not leaking up to the top yet.”
This explanation clarifies that the Navy left the first pipelines in place until TIDA could take over the land for redevelopment and build a completely new infrastructure with entirely fresh pipelines.

This made you the perfect spokesperson.

You and I first met in 1999 after I had newly arrived in San Francisco. As dumb luck would have it, I took your political journalism class at Media Alliance. It was an eye-opener. You were especially insightful as you filled us in on Willie Brown and his special method of wielding power in California and San Francisco.

You introduced me to Greenaction, Bradley Angel and your work.

You and I wrote several articles together about environmental injustice at Hunters Point – the rigging of air monitors to conceal the amount of dust thrown off during the “clean-up” of the former Naval Station.

Over the years, we ran into each other. Once outside 850 Bryant you showed me photos of young women living in Bayview Hunters Point with clumps of hair missing from their heads.

On Monday, May 14, 2018, Marie Harrison testified on San Francisco City Hall steps about 30 years of Navy lies to the community about the cleanup and the recent fraudulent data produced by employees of the Navy’s chief contractor, Tetra Tech, to cover up the radiological pollution at Hunters Point.

As I watched the destruction of the environment, I committed to writing about environmental justice, not in small part inspired by you and your work. In 2014, as an investigative reporter, I took on environmental injustice at Treasure Island, Hunters Point’s siamese twin.

Low income and people of color have been forced to live in both San Francisco neighborhoods without first being told that the Navy polluted the air, soil and water with radiological and chemical poisons left over from its global military aggressions.

In 2016, when Greenaction protested the predatory builder, Lennar, you spoke on my video camera about both Hunters Point and Treasure Island.

At an April 4, 2016, Greenaction protest in front of Lennar Corp.’s Mission Street sales office, Marie Harrison says, “We want the world to know we are definitely serious. We need the EPA to step up” and monitor the poisoning of people at Hunters Point and on Treasure Island. “Hiding behind rules and regulations don’t play in our book anymore.”

Last October 2018, when you took Greenaction’s toxic tour through Treasure Island, I shot video as you sat in the seat next to me with oxygen prongs in your nose. I didn’t know then, of course, that this would be one of your final acts as you spoke on camera about yet another abuse of civil and human environmental rights.

This is my small personal note. I join with so many others in honoring on the public record the power of your voice in speaking truth. I wanted to confirm in church that you and I both know that this journey is not only a secular one. It is a spiritual one.

I want to give you the respect and praise you so richly deserve for your tireless work – to say with everyone gathered here that we join you in continuing this fight until our very last breath.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.comShe wants to acknowledge that the inspiration for the headline for this story came from a tribute to Marie Harrison by Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai,
To the very last breath: Marie Harrison’s epic stand to save Bayview Hunters Point.”