by Carol Harvey
On Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, during a San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee hearing, San Franciscans learned for the first time that their neighbors on Treasure Island are sick from contamination by radiation, chemicals, lead, asbestos and black mold that the Navy left behind after decommissioning the base.
During public comment, two former islanders who were able to identify themselves without fear of retaliation reported racing heart, tooth loss, daily vomiting, excruciating migraines, inability to stand, sudden collapse, seizures, slurred speech, exhaustion, tremors, severe skin problems, ulcers, breast tumor and reproductive organ removal, food allergies, mouth and throat sores, bone decay, gall bladder and colon removal.
These reports of toxin exposure and illnesses suffered by past Treasure Island residents serve to protect present islanders experiencing similar diseases caused by exposure to the same toxins.
Current islanders know if they complain about bad housing or illnesses, they will be harassed and evicted. Harassment and threats of eviction are scare tactics used by island property management corporation The John Stewart Co. and the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) to quiet residents.
The purpose seems to be to keep residents quiet so these powerbrokers can redevelop the place. Current residents in this close-knit community are three-quarters people of color. They are being subjected to environmental classism and racism.
My name is Carol Harvey. For seven years, I’ve done investigative reporting on Treasure Island for the San Francisco Bay View National Black newspaper. I’m in constant touch with people on Treasure Island by phone and text. They trust me because I keep what they tell me off the record. Many have seen me walking the island videoing the streets, the buildings and inside homes.
The Navy never says how toxic the island is or admits that they’ve done a deficient job of cleaning it up. When they claim it’s safe, many islanders believe it; this is understandable. We all want to live our daily lives in peace without having to face the fact that the place we live could poison us and our children.
Some residents were formerly homeless. The Bay Area housing crisis forces them to make a “Sophie’s Choice” – do they risk radiation poisoning on the island, or do they end up with their kids back on San Francisco streets or living in a Tenderloin hotel?
Islanders who can’t talk about it are ill from respiratory diseases, strokes, skin rashes and sores, hair loss, seizures, tumors, cancers, liver and kidney failure, reproductive organ damage, birth defects, spontaneous bone fractures, heart attacks, blood disorders and radiation burns.
Recently I learned an islander suffered a heart attack. Then, I was told two people died. Right after that, I got a call from a mother whose doctor had just said her 10-year-old son has a brain tumor.
San Francisco citizens need to understand that their neighbors are being poisoned and that they need help right now.
Allow me to introduce four former islanders who will describe how the island made them sick. Because they don’t live there anymore, two of them were able to safely identify themselves during the public comment period at the hearing without fear of being booted off the island.
“My name is Asia William. I am 25 years old and originally from Oakland, Calif. “From 2017 to 2018, my unborn daughter and I were exposed to asbestos, radiation, chemicals, heavy metals like lead and toxic black mold on Treasure Island.
“I was a mobile patrol officer with Admiral Security. The company even offered me incentives to stay a full year. I left in nine months after learning about the toxins I was being exposed to while working there.
“While conducting my foot and mobile patrols, I became very familiarized with Treasure and Yerba Buena islands. I controlled access and checked alarms in old Navy and commercial buildings. I reported break-ins, graffiti – anything unusual – and so much more.
“My coworkers and I were the designated first responders for the entire island. We had to contact police, unlock doors, and make sure no one was inside buildings. Police had guns, but security entered unarmed.
“During my first five months working, I was pregnant. The company didn’t inform me I was walking in radioactive areas or prepare me with special shoes or safety equipment. Before I knew the island was contaminated, I tracked toxins into my home.
“While working on Treasure Island I became familiar with the residents and part of my job was to protect them. Most residents are poor and people of color, some formerly homeless. I am offended that they are poisoned from instruments of war. I worked there so I was being affected by it too. As security, I had to assist with evicting residents for multiple reasons.
“Treasure Island frequently has power outages. No one can use the bathrooms because toilets don’t flush and sewage overflows. The worst thing is that everyone has a hard time accessing food because the stores close during this time.
“I saw multiple letters on doors warning residents, ‘We will be testing and raising dust in this area.’ That always alarmed me.
“I had to unlock the gate into the toxic Halyburton-Bigelow Court cleanup zone daily to check the vacant townhouses for damage and homeless squatters. TIDA and the Navy have done a poor job keeping homeless people away from the toxic neighborhood.
My supervisor told me to order a family to deflate a bounce-house they put up for their child’s birthday party because the spikes they put into the ground would ‘reactivate the radiation. Can’t dig up the radiation,’ he laughed. Then he said, ‘Don’t worry. The radiation is cleaned by the Navy.’
“In April 2017, while foot patrolling and checking alarms at a vacant apartment next to Bigelow Court, I had to walk through grass that made my left leg itchy as if multiple bugs were biting at my skin. Even through my thick leggings and boots, I could feel it.
“My leg developed black marks and irritation that reappeared only when I returned to this area. Neither Admiral Security nor Treasure Island authorities warned me that Bigelow Court was super-toxic with PCBs (chemicals) and radiation. In 2021, the marks that look like radiation burns are still there.
“Often while doing my foot patrols I was breathing heavy dust and coughing up mucus all the time. Before entering the old movie theater and roller rink, I would close my mouth and nose when patrolling these buildings which later I learned are full of asbestos! I stepped on heaps of dead birds and feathers while enforcing the rules to stop people from doing unauthorized video shoots in an area full of lead that causes brain damage.
“My supervisor said before moving people out and demolishing the 1227 Mariner Drive townhouse that the Navy tested the soil and found lead.
“In August 2017, my supervisor told me to order a family to deflate a bounce-house they put up for their child’s birthday party because the spikes they put into the ground would ‘reactivate the radiation. Can’t dig up the radiation,’ he laughed. Then he said, ‘Don’t worry. The radiation is cleaned by the Navy.’
“I started researching radiation on Treasure Island immediately after. This job was my only source of income, so I feared being fired if I told my boss about toxin exposure or my leg problem. I became quiet and more aware, fearing my superiors would know how much I was learning and was being exposed. I was also worried because I was pregnant.
When I visit the radiation schools and cleanup zones, to this day in 2021, there are still no signs warning people who go in there that these areas are toxic. I suspect that the redevelopment continues because the truth is hidden.
“A few months after I left Treasure Island, I had severe chest discomfort – 10 out of 10. Intense pressure made me gasp. My heart slowed for three minutes. I felt like it would stop. My left leg with the spots from the island swelled painfully.
“I was hospitalized. My heart and blood tests showed heart damage, but doctors couldn’t determine the cause. I left the hospital in two days. At home, my leg swelled, my ankle became painful, and my chest stayed uncomfortable for a week. The pain lessened to 4 on a scale of 10.
“After I left the job, I came back to Treasure Island to work with Carol Harvey on a documentary about the island. In the course of our investigations, I interviewed a resident whose front step was removed to dig out a basketball-sized clump of radioactive dirt from underneath. Workers didn’t tell them a hole was being dug under their front porch, so they fell and hurt their back.
“When I visit the radiation schools and cleanup zones, to this day in 2021, there are still no signs warning people who go in there that these areas are toxic. I suspect that the redevelopment continues because the truth is hidden.
“I deserve justice and compensation for damage to my daughter’s health and mine. What is happening to mostly people of color on Treasure Island is an outrage.”
“When I moved in to 1325A Westside Dr. on Treasure Island at the shore facing San Francisco, I was a perfectly healthy 22-year-old full-time student. By the time I moved out in October 2007, I was homebound and unable to continue school.
“I was told I’d be safe when remediation began only feet from where I lived. For eight months, dust clouds were thrown around my house every day. By Christmas, I was too sick to leave my bed. That was when my poisoning began, but I wouldn’t know the cause for another decade: A decade of missed holidays, birthdays, births and deaths.
“My teeth began cracking and falling out one by one in 2007. From 2007-2016, eating made me vomit; I threw up daily and had migraines. I don’t remember much from that decade. I was on and off bedridden and housebound. I would forget everything, show up to places at the wrong time, day or week. Frequent life-threatening electrolyte imbalances put me in the ER for risk of cardiac arrest.
“I have daily seizures. I am unable to stay awake for more than a few hours before I am involuntarily put to sleep by my own body. If I am walking, my body melts to the ground and my muscles become temporarily paralyzed due to narcolepsy.
“Some days I can only walk a few minutes before collapsing, because my nervous system is damaged. Despite my pulse doubling when I stand, it’s not enough to keep my brain from losing oxygen. Sometimes my vision blacks out and I fall over. People conclude I’m drunk or on drugs.
“Though many of these episodes leave me exhausted for days, I sleep horribly. I spend nights trying to sleep and days fighting to stay awake. I have debilitating, full-body arthritis pain that began at age 23. The last time I went jogging was on the perimeter path around Treasure Island in 2006.
“I wish endometriosis was the only reason I’m unable to have children. For 10 years, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
“I finally learned my house sat on or near 11 contaminated sites, that I was exposed to radiation, lead, arsenic and chemicals in the dust clouds workers tossed over my home. Navy documents show 1,289 radioactive objects and soils recovered from Treasure Island – 600 from the cleanup zone next to me.
Today I remain mostly homebound, frequently bedridden for days at a time. I’m 37. When I was 22, I died.
“The Navy calls the radiological objects ‘low level.’ The term ‘low level’ is open to interpretation and not numerically defined.
“In 1957, the Navy conducted a mock atomic explosion which rained down napalm on my house. An arsenic plume expanded under my house for years. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, sailors hosed radiation off a mockup ship and underwent radiation decontamination in a chemical warfare school within 100 feet of me.
“I used to drink coffee sitting on the rocks enjoying the view over a spot measured as dangerously radioactive. My Westside Drive townhouse, number 1325A, sat close to 1310 Gateview Ave., where a teen girl also had seizures 15 years before.
“Exposure to radiation and chemicals can cause all of the diseases with which doctors have diagnosed me: endometriosis, thyroid disease, narcolepsy with cataplexy, epilepsy, arthritis and dysautonomia. Dysautonomia is like driving a stick shift. Nothing in the body works automatically, like heartbeat, breathing and digestion.
“Today I remain mostly homebound, frequently bedridden for days at a time. I’m 37. When I was 22, I died. I still watch opportunities and friends pass me by. I lost to my illness every family dinner, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. Nearly all friends abandoned me. I lost a career. I became a ghost who lives to see what could have been.”
“My name is Manova Lowman. I am 51 years old. I suffered severe physical, emotional and material harm from exposure to Treasure Island’s radiation and chemical cleanup zones.
“I’ve been more sick and miserable than I tell people, with one illness after another for years. A blood clotting deficiency can make me bleed to death from a small cut. If I go a month without expensive medication, I feel exhausted and sick.
“I’m broke and depressed. I live for my ‘fur kids,’ Jack, my chihuahua, and Scalawag, my cat. In the past, I was a healthy, athletic physical education instructor. I’m military, a veteran, well-traveled, with a master’s of international relations from the University of Essex.
“I spent 16 years on Treasure Island – one year at Mason Court on the city side, then 13 years on the Berkeley side at Northpoint Drive. I worked on Treasure Island as a Job Corps dorm supervisor, then at a bottling company.
“Years later learned that in 1999, the Navy and TIDA, the authority that runs the island, knew the soil was radioactively and chemically contaminated but didn’t inform tenants. In 2002, when I moved onto the island, it was early. At this point, there were no bulldozers, fences, radiation talk, or cleanup zones next to my homes.
The former site of the mockup ship Pandemonium Two that sailors sprayed with radioactive cesium-137 was in my backyard.
“I had the bad luck to live near the only three radioactive areas the Navy had discovered by 1997 – 1207 and 1209 Bayside Drive and 1133 Mason Court. In 2001, I visited a friend on Bayside Drive near radioactive townhouses 1207 and 1209.
“In 2002, I moved into 1135F Mason Court. When I rolled out turf over a new expensive backyard lawn, I probably had my hands in radioactive dirt. I didn’t know that 19 years later, the Navy would demolish the townhouse next to mine to dig radioactivity from beneath it and pry dioxin from our shared parking area.
“Mason Court abutted the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area, one of the four radiation zones around which the Navy erected fences in 2002. They removed at least 600 radioactive objects and soils from this cleanup zone.
“In 2003, I moved to the island’s Berkeley side where for 13 years I lived sandwiched between multiple toxic cleanup zones. In 2012, investigative reporters dug radioactive material from island soil near my home.
“Austin Hall, a former nuclear school where the Navy stored radiation sources, was visible from my back windows. The former site of the mockup ship Pandemonium Two that sailors sprayed with radioactive cesium-137 was in my backyard.
“Across a lane behind my home was a field. That field was the Navy’s Site 6 where I could see rows of boxcars filled with radioactive material the Navy shipped out of state to toxic dumps.
“Site 6 functioned as a 1950s firefighting school, where sailors set blazes that deposited deadly dioxin and furans in the soil. They doused the fires with foam full of PFOAs, man-made chemicals that enter human bloodstreams through water and attack the reproductive system. Flowing into my potable water through old, cracked pipes, these toxins could have caused the uterine tumors I developed in 2013.
“In 2014, chain link fences materialized two doors west of my apartment around the Northpoint Solid Waste Disposal Area, a cleanup zone where the Navy demolished townhouses and extracted radioactive objects and chemicals that they hauled off in uncovered trucks.
“During blood work for a hysterectomy, my doctors discovered a rare disorder: ideopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an incurable, chronic auto-immune disease in which the body attacks the platelets that cause the blood to clot.
“Oncologists and hematologists said only that ITP was not in my family history. Following my hysterectomy, ITP treatment required costly pills with painful side effects.
“Every day I have to take Promacta, at about $13,000 per month. I jump through hoops to get on special programs to obtain Promacta at no cost. Moving or changing jobs or health insurance is a bureaucratic nightmare.
“When I’ve relocated and suffered periods without medications, I end up getting immunoglobulin transfusions at the ER – $25,000 per treatment. In 2015, I moved to Hawaii to escape Treasure Island’s toxins and regain my health. In 2018, I returned to the mainland at Corvallis, Ore., after Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions.
“I’ve had good times, too, and I’m trying to improve my life. But, like I say: I’m sick, miserable and depressed all the time, and I need help.”
Smadar Lavie’s statement is presented in the third person. Smadar Lavie is an American-Israeli woman of color who lived on Treasure Island for six years, from 2012 until her eviction in 2018.
Smadar resided on Reeves Court, a small cul-de-sac where her neighbors were mostly other people of color. Reeves Court sits 50 feet from Halyburton-Bigelow Court, a cleanup zone so toxic no one lived there after Navy families left in 1997.
Smadar reported that while living on Treasure Island, she suffered anti-Arab and anti-Semitic slurs, screamed abuse, and five years of eviction threats from island operatives. She observed other tenants of color too terrorized to expose their abuse, including physical violence.
She is a mother of Jewish-Israeli ancestry, a feminist anthropologist and U.C. Davis professor emeritus. She is known worldwide as an author and co-founder and former leader of Israel’s feminists of color movement. She received awards for advocating for equal rights and combating racial discrimination against Jewish women of color living in Israel.
Her unquestioned expertise enabled her to identify Treasure Island’s environmental racism. An article about Smadar by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project that appeared in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper in 2017 stated that censuses show Treasure Island is the third most diverse neighborhood in the U.S.
Seventy percent of tenants are Black or Latinx, the majority low-income. Most of San Francisco’s 2016 evictions occurred in District 6 where Treasure Island is located, according to statistics from the Eviction Defense Collaborative, the agency that defended these cases.
TI has a radioactive history from past Navy usage. Disease patterns – heart problems, tumors and cancers – afflict island residents.
Under EPA Limited Land Use restrictions, the Navy’s Site 12, which comprises community housing, is so chemically contaminated and radioactive it will be designated as unlivable “wetlands and wildlands” on the redeveloped island.
Tenants of color live in the island’s most highly polluted areas, located centrally or on the northeastern side facing Oakland and Berkeley. They have experienced discriminatory treatment designed to exclude them from the redevelopment. White tenants pay market rate rents on the island’s northwestern shoreline facing San Francisco. They will receive comparable-sized housing units in the new development.
Smadar asserts the blatant racism she observed is founded in white supremacist assumptions on the part of island operatives. These attitudes are held by developers who want to make money from the gentrification of the island.
She states in a video published on YouTube Oct. 26, 2017, that she got the message, “A: to shut up about issues of race, and B: to shut up about the practices of the management here that come straight from a guidebook of white supremacists. White supremacists believe that America is theirs and people of color are guests on their land.”
The John Stewart Co.’s bulldog attorney, Mercedes Gavin, harasses and evicts residents who are vocal about substandard living conditions or diseases from toxin exposure. Unable to afford lawyers, they must file their own court papers and defend themselves.
Smadar reports that the plan of the Treasure Island Development Authority and The John Stewart Co. excludes low-income tenants of color from the upscale redevelopment. Illegal leases that Brown and Black tenants, including Smadar, were offered were not approved by the San Francisco city attorney.
Smadar asserts that leases denying islanders’ relocation rights into equivalent new apartments and non-lottery access to new units as well as permitting no-cause evictions are illegal because TI is public land held by the Navy and the city.
John Stewart’s bulldog attorney, Mercedes Gavin, harasses and evicts residents who are vocal about substandard living conditions or diseases from toxin exposure. Unable to afford lawyers, they must file their own court papers and defend themselves.
Smadar reports that, after repeatedly whistle-blowing on Treasure Island’s social networking website, NextDoor, about environmental racism, infrastructural deficiencies, frequent electrical outages and polluted drinking water, she suffered a retaliatory “no cause” eviction by attorney Gavin.
As of April 2012, she received permission from property manager Dan Stone of John Stewart’s “The Villages” to use Airbnb to help cover her rent while she traveled for work. In spring 2017, when The Villages instructed tenants to stop using Airbnb, she complied.
Smadar believes she was singled out for her whistleblowing. When she returned from a July 2017 trip, she was shocked by one of Gavin’s standard intimidation tactics. The attorney had posted a “no cause” eviction notice on Smadar’s door.
Smadar recounts in the video that she contacted attorney Gavin to tell her that her 60-day notice ended on Sept. 22, during Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). When Smadar asked Gavin to move the eviction date to after Yom Kippur, Sept. 30, Gavin replied: “No. We’re not going to change anything. Your holiday thing is perfect. While you’re at church [Smadar is Jewish], we’ll go ahead and file the unlawful detainer. And then on Sept. 29, we’ll recover possession of your unit and change the locks.”
Major investors in the Treasure Island redevelopment project have been generous donors to the election campaigns of Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and San Francisco’s mayors, from Willie Brown to Ed Lee.
Mercedes Gavin refused to give a reason for the eviction or discuss Smadar’s settlement proposals. Gavin offered to sort out Smadar’s research material and sell it online. The attorney suggested Smadar move to a shelter. Nothing in Gavin’s 75 harsh emails to Smadar hinted that she offered to let Smadar stay until Dec. 31, 2017.
Gavin did not stop there. She threatened Smadar’s attorney with $16,000 in sanctions. Gavin fabricated a story that Smadar made huge sums from her books and speaker honorariums and didn’t report them to the IRS. She says that authors front money to print their books, and speakers receive about $500, if lucky.
Gavin’s phone calls threatening Smadar’s psychotherapist seemed intended to discourage Smadar’s testimony. This thicket of false allegations and lies increased Smadar’s attorney’s workload, costs and fees and seemed designed to terrorize and traumatize Smadar so she would appear incoherent and unconvincing in court.
Without evidence, Gavin alleged that Smadar hosted Airbnb guests between August and December 2017. When Smadar moved her case from state to federal court, John Stewart Co. substituted for “no cause” this allegation that she violated JSCO policy because she had been using Airbnb to cover rent while she traveled. The federal court then dumped the case back to the SF tenant-landlord court.
Smadar notes that major investors in the Treasure Island redevelopment project have been generous donors to the election campaigns of Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and San Francisco’s mayors, from Willie Brown to Ed Lee.
Smadar’s experience on Treasure Island documents the certainty of harassment and eviction if islanders speak out about these civil rights abuses and the reality of environmental racism perpetrated in this San Francisco neighborhood for years.
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.