From mother to martyr: Remembering Marie Harrison on the anniversary of her ‘very last breath’

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

Marie Harrison was a member of the Huntersview Mothers’ Committee on May 15, 2006, when the turbines of the 70-year-old PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant, located at 1000 Evans Ave. at the base of the Hunters Point hilltop, shut down … for good! Ten days after putting into service the Jefferson Martin Transmission Line, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. kept the promise it made in 1998 to shutter the dilapidated natural gas-fired plant after replacing the 400 megawatts of backup power the power plant supplied.

Demolition of a polluting power plant and halting residential development on a Superfund site are but two of the miraculous testaments to the life of “Saint Marie of Hunters Point.”

What began as a tight knit group of “mothers turned environmentalists” mushroomed over 25 years to become a mighty coalition drawing consensus support across a broad spectrum of community leaders, environmental activists and scientists, health and legal experts, regulators, politicians and elected officials at all levels of government.

In Southeast San Francisco in about 2006, sources of pollution, in addition to the PG&E Power Plant that exploded in 2000 and discharged billowing stacks of toxic air contaminants, Bayview Hunters Point is also the site of a federal Superfund site, a sewage treatment plant, toxic waste sites and polluting industries and is burdened by excess construction dust and airborne emissions from highways and major freeways. – Map: SF Chronicle

“When each of the gun-powdered charges exploded – it sliced through the building material, causing it to fall on top of itself and the stack fell over in its entirety … PG&E eventually agreed to shut it down and Friday’s final demolition marks a significant community milestone,” reported ABC7 in a story headlined “Hunters Point Power Plant Demolished,” published Sept. 19, 2008.

In Southeast San Francisco in about 2006, sources of pollution, in addition to the PG&E Power Plant that exploded in 2000 and discharged billowing stacks of toxic air contaminants, Bayview Hunters Point is also the site of a federal Superfund site, a sewage treatment plant, toxic waste sites and polluting industries and is burdened by excess construction dust and airborne emissions from highways and major freeways. – Map: SF Chronicle

Marie Harrison’s divinely inspired crusades to end the environmental injustice that plagued her community and ravaged her family and friends with a host of environmental diseases from headaches and nosebleeds to skin rashes and unexplained cancers, ended on May 5, 2019, after she suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest and died of a chronic lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis.

PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant circa 2007 … Now you see it! – Photo: Chris Carlsson

Her once healthy lungs became progressively more stiff from scars caused by decades of bombardment by fine particles, toxic fumes and airborne chemicals. It restricted her breath but not her message. Wearing nasal cannulas and an oxygen tank she continued her fight … to the very last breath!

PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant circa 2008 … Now you don’t! – Photo: Chris Carlsson

Memorializing the one year anniversary of her death, in May of 2020 the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitoring Network (MHBAM) finalized site selection for the community led, AB 617 funded project to place 10 Dylos particulate air monitors in key locations throughout Bayview Hunters Point. Greenaction community organizer Dalila Adofo coordinates the 10-member MHBAM steering committee. Proposed sites include Joseph Lee Recreation Center, Southeast Clinic, Thurgood Marshall High, Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club, Hunters Point Shipyard entrance and the industrial regions of Yosemite Slough and Bayshore.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a form of interstitial lung disease in which lung tissue becomes stiff and damaged by scars and cannot perform the work of transporting oxygen to the bloodstream and body.

In “Marie Harrison, mother of the movement for environmental justice,” SF Bay View editors acknowledged tributes to Marie Harrison, “legendary warrior who laid down her life for her community,” poured in from the San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner, SF Weekly, Mission Local and from the SF Bay View, where Harrison wrote a weekly column about environmental issues.

Dalila Adofo, a Greenaction organizer with the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitoring Network, carries on Marie’s legacy of courage and integrity.

It has been a year since my friend Marie Harrison lost her epic final battle at age 71, following a cardiopulmonary arrest on May 4, 2019. In the passing year, I have come to recognize her destined role … as mother … as martyr … as the “Joan of Arc” of the Environmental Movement in Southeast San Francisco!

“We have the right to live, work, play and worship on land that is clean,” Marie declared. To her very last breath, Marie Harrison gave her life to save Bayview Hunters Point. – Photo: Greenaction

References:

Marie Harrison, mother of the movement for environmental justice,” SF Bay View

Bayview Hunters Point tests its air,” 48 Hills

Big victory for Hunters Point activists: As PG&E closes its old, smoky power plant, the neighborhood breathes a sigh of relief,” SF Chronicle

To the very last breath: Marie Harrison’s epic stand to save Bayview Hunters Point,” SF Bay View

City mourns loss of passionate Bayview community advocate Marie Harrison,” SF Examiner

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D., can be reached at 415-859-5471.