To the very last breath: Marie Harrison’s epic stand to save Bayview Hunters Point

Marie Harrison leads a protest rally wearing oxygen cannulas in front of San Francisco City Hall prior to a hearing on the 25-year-long ongoing cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard Superfund site on May 14, 2018. – Photo: Kevin N. Hume, SF Examiner

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

“We have the right to live, work, play and worship on land that is clean.” – Marie Harrison of Greenaction, quoted by Gregory Dicum, SF Chronicle, Feb. 2, 2005

Marie Harrison’s grandson Roman stood by her at protest after protest from the time he was a small child.

“My grandson used to suffer tremendously … he had asthma attacks and chronic nosebleeds. He would wake up some mornings with his pillow soaked with blood. In the building where my grandson stayed there were four units. Three of those units had children sick with asthma or another pulmonary disease. The other one had an adult with cancer, and the last one had an older child with really bad skin rashes,” Harrison told writer Gregory Dicum with the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 2, 2005.

In 2007, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the imminent closure of the Hunters Point PG&E Power Plant. This was not the first time such a declaration had been made. The plant had been scheduled for shut down in 2001 and Marie Harrison had become expert in the impacts air pollution was having on her family and her community.

Marie Harrison, Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai and other activists enjoy the Greenaction holiday party in December 2018.

As a columnist with the SF Bay View newspaper and community organizer for Greenaction, Harrison became “the power plant’s arch nemesis.” As a 2000 candidate for D10 Supervisor and outspoken leader of the environmental justice movement in southeast San Francisco, Harrison knew it was time to act. Along with activists and community members, Harrison strategically blockaded the entry to the power plant to force its closure.

Marie holds forth at a meeting. She could explain the science and politics of environmental racism so that everyone could understand and join her in fighting it.

It took two more years of a “David versus Goliath” environmental justice battle – one of Bayview Hunters Point’s biggest – but in 2009 the PG&E Power Plant was finally demolished.

People power, largely led by Marie Harrison writing in the Bay View, organizing and protesting, shut down the PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant, the largest and dirtiest power plant in California, in 2006. This photo was taken in 2007 prior to demolition.

Marie Harrison died on May 5, 2019, after suffering a respiratory arrest secondary to a chronic lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. IPF is a fibrotic lung disease characterized by progressive and irreversible lung scarring and decline in lung function.

Lung transplantation is the only definitive cure. IPF affects only 12 people per thousand each year and many die within four years of diagnosis. Most patients with IPF are smokers who suffer from chronic infections or workers in polluting industries like the hundreds operating in the 94124 zip code in Bayview Hunters Point.

Environmental health and justice leaders Michelle Pierce, Tony Kelly and Marie Harrison

Marie Harrison did not smoke! IPF is associated with environmental exposures to metal dust, wood dust, coal dust, silica, stone dust and biological dusts from mold spores.

Marie Harrison was a fighter to the end. The final year of her life was spent in protests at San Francisco City Hall and atop the Hunters Point Shipyard at the Lennar development on Parcel A. The Bayview Hunters Point Community Air Monitoring Project will vote at its May 2019 meeting on a proposal to name itself the Marie Harrison Community Air Monitoring Network.

Dance in Peace, Marie Harrison! A celebration of her life will be held Saturday, May 18, at noon at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 825 Newhall St. at Third in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco.

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D., founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at Dr. Sumchai is also president and medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, an author and a UCSF and Stanford trained researcher.