Struck in the eyes

Gateview-Avenue-walk-on-Treasure-Island-by-Carol-Harvey-1400x783, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Deceptively pretty green spring trees entice pedestrians down Gateview Avenue, a main Treasure Island thoroughfare winding through the community past the Westside radiation cleanup zone. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Fair warning, part 2A 

by Carol Harvey

On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, a bright, blue day, a Treasure Island resident and their friend were looking forward to taking the resident’s small dog on a favorite walk down Gateview Avenue, a pretty, tree-lined street. Because the island floats at sea level in San Francisco Bay, sunshine is particularly beautiful on days like this. 

The excursion was a sign of recovery from their hospitalization the previous week. A quiet stroll was just what they needed. However, the walk turned out to be anything but relaxing.

Though the resident ambulates with a cane and a walker, they rode in their wheelchair that day. To protect their hair and eyes from wind blasts that continually churn up island dust, they wore a head covering and dark glasses over their regular glasses.

Map-of-Treasure-Island-courtesy-CurbedSF-markup-by-Carol-Harvey, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Map of Treasure Island with a black line drawn to 12th Street and Avenue B, a black line drawn to the Arsenic Park at Gateview Avenue and a red circle surrounding the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area. – Photo: CurbedSF, markups by Carol Harvey

On the San Francisco side of this small 404-acre island, the group traveled southwest on 12th Street toward the Bay. At 12th street, they crossed Avenue B.

Map-of-12th-Street-walk-on-Treasure-Island-by-Carol-Harvey, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Map of walk down 12th Street – crossing Avenue B – taking the sidewalk between 1310 and 1312 Gateview – crossing Gateview – turning right down Gateview to the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area. – Photo: Carol Harvey
San-Francisco-skyline-from-Treasure-Island-by-Carol-Harvey, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Over the meadow, the misty San Francisco skyline seems suspended along the horizon. – Photo: Carol Harvey

They followed the sidewalk between townhouses 1310 and 1312 Gateview Avenue. At Gateview Avenue, looking left across the street over a meadow, the misty silhouette of the San Francisco city skyline seemed suspended along the horizon across the Bay. 

Awareness or denial?

Like most Treasure Island residents, in order to function each day, they have been forced to live with some level of awareness or denial that every yard, park, pathway, street and townhouse in their Treasure Island neighborhood is polluted with toxic material blowing on dust from cleanup zones where the Navy is removing dangerous radiation and chemicals. 

In the Bay Area’s out-of-control rental market, they had nowhere else to go. Consequently, until their walk that day, they accepted to some degree the Navy’s and TIDA’s reassurances that distance and fencing protected them from toxins.

Westside-Solid-Waste-Disposal-Area-cleanup-zone-fence-by-Carol-Harvey-1400x783, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
The western edge of this cyclone fence circled in red surrounds the largest, longest-standing cleanup zone on Treasure Island. – Photo: Carol Harvey

They didn’t think much about the fact that to their right across this little park, they could see the western edge of a cyclone fence that surrounded the island’s oldest cleanup zone, the appropriately named Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area that curved around the northwestern, western, and southwestern shores. For 27 years, the Navy had been excavating a wide variety of hazardous material – radiation, chemicals, petroleum and the heavy metals, lead and arsenic from inside and around this toxic dump. 

Toxic timeline

They were unaware of the timeline of the toxic cleanup the Navy had conducted.

Decontamination-Building-273-from-Navy-documents, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Radium-226 could have penetrated the soil in the meadow at Gateview Avenue under the footprint of former Building 273, where in 1950 sailors were decontaminated following a major toxic spill out of a radiation lab inside Building 233 on Avenue M. – Photo: US Navy

They had not read Navy documents that identified now-demolished Building 273 that sat in the park across Gateview Avenue, part of a Navy Chemical Warfare school where student sailors, caught in the huge 1950 radiation spill from a lab in Building 233 underwent decontamination of radium-226 that may well have penetrated the ground at this site.

Simulated-atomic-bomb-explosion-courtesy-of-Corinne-Schulze, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
A Navy simulation of an atomic bomb explosion rained down napalm, benzine and polystyrene over the Gateview Avenue townhouses and the soil in this meadow. – Photo: Corinne Schulze

They didn’t know that this park sat in the blast zone of a simulated atomic bomb explosion, part of a Navy symposium on nuclear war conducted in 1957 near the shore facing San Francisco. The explosion sprayed napalm, benzene and polystyrene over the SWDA and this neighborhood where many residents lived. 

They didn’t know that in this place, after exposure to the same array of chemical and radiological neurotoxins as in the Westside SWDA, two women living a block and 15 years apart manifested similar symptoms. In 1991, Rachel Sullivan, a teen member of a Navy family living at 1310B Gateview Ave., suffered excruciating migraine headaches and epileptic-type seizures. 

Fifteen years later, in 2006 and 2007, student Violet Andry Anaya rented townhouse 1325A, a half block toward the shore from Rachel next to the Westside cleanup zone. Living in that house, Violet experienced what she identifies as severe, disabling neurological damage, with nausea, dizziness, inability to stand and fainting spells. 

They didn’t know that this park sat in the blast zone of a simulated atomic bomb explosion. 

From February through September 2007, workers stirred up dirt in Violet’s backyard “I lived in the waste,” she recalled. Toxic dust clouds were so thick the Navy had to plastic-wrap her windows.

The resident had not known that for five decades, up through 2016, old “withered” total petroleum hydrocarbon (TPH) broke down into arsenic that the Navy left expanding through the dirt in a huge underground “plume” or bubble until 2016-2017 when workers dug it from under the large grassy area near occupied homes at the intersection of Westside Drive and Gateview Avenue. 

About that time the Navy demolished townhouse 1325 and the meadow which now stretched in a brownish-green swathe to the shore where pedestrians walked and joggers ran along a path.

In summary, anyone walking past this large green space ran the risk of exposure to left-over toxins the Navy missed during their inadequate cleanup: (1) radiation from multiple sources, (2) the chemicals, napalm, benzene and polystyrene from the atomic bomb simulation and (3) the heavy metal arsenic, which had formed in a bubble under this meadow for years. All these toxins could easily have spread in the groundwater under a substantial portion of the surrounding terrain, beneath both the Westside Solid Waste Disposal area and the large Gateview Avenue community through which the resident was traveling on their ‘pretty walk.’

Pretty walk

They crossed Gateview Avenue and turned right. The resident wheeled along the sidewalk behind their companion and the dog. To their left, they passed two unoccupied townhouses, 1315 and 1317 Gateview Ave.

A Monterey pine and a lush green sycamore shaded the front yard of townhouse 1315. From the green tarped chain link fence that stretched in front of them down the sidewalk, a large black and white warning sign shouted: “Hazardous Substances, Unauthorized Persons Keep Out!”

Hidden-radiation-signs-by-Carol-Harvey, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Recessed in a cul-de-sac, the Navy posted these two radiation signs on the fence between townhouse 1315 and the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area, semi-hidden from public view. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Just beyond the trees, the cyclone fence snaked 25 feet off the sidewalk behind townhouse 1315. Recessed in a cul-de-sac, the Navy posted two yellow radiation signs on the SWDA fence between the townhouse and the cleanup zone, semi-hidden from public view.

A few feet down the sidewalk, Townhouse 1317 was enclosed inside the cleanup zone fence. The resident wheeled toward the end of townhouse 1317. About fifty feet past 1317, the Westside SWDA gate opens onto Gateview Avenue.

The busy intersection of Gateview and Avenue B is an access point admitting workers and trucks through a gate into the cleanup zone. Across Gateview from the entrance, Sturgeon Street joins Avenue B near a bus stop in a small park.

Suddenly the little dog darted across Gateview Avenue toward Canadian Geese bobbing their black heads and necks up and down snatching insects and seeds from the grass in the park behind the Avenue B bus stop. In the street near the opposite curb, he squatted briefly to do his business. The companion crossed Gateview Avenue after the dog.

“I was trailing behind” the person and the pup “who had already crossed over to the field behind the Avenue B bus stop,” they said. “The direction we had just come from beforehand was calmer. The 1315 Gateview Ave. townhouse must have provided wind blockage.”

In fact, both the 1315 and 1317 Gateview Ave. townhouses had sheltered the resident from dusty wind blowing hard across the SWDA from the Bay.

As the resident swung their wheelchair to the right into the street following the friend and the dog, they emerged from the protective shadow of townhouse 1317.

Opening-in-the-fence-at-1317-Gateview-by-Treasure-Island-resident-1400x732, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Through the opening in the tarp, the resident saw “two yellow radiation signs on a rope between two orange posts” surrounding a smaller isolated radiation cleanup area, a dozen cleanup workers scanning for explosives and radioactive objects, dust blowing off large and small dirt piles next to townhouse 1317. – Photo: Treasure Island resident

Struck in the eyes 

Suddenly, the green tarp on the fence alongside townhouse 1317 kicked up “a strong wind gust that caught me off guard and hit [me] with stinging force.”

A gritty substance burst out of the toxic dump striking the startled resident in the face, eyes, lips and mouth. They felt sudden pain on their face and hands.

“A blast of hazardous substances came tunneling through a gap in the tarp” that “must have carried particle dust and debris with it.” It shot down their throat. It coated their neck, chest and hands.

“Despite the double barrier of (two pairs of) glasses, I felt an immediate sharp burning sensation in my eyes, on the skin of my face, on my lips under my mask, on my scalp and on my hands and wrists.”

Though the shoreline a block away is lined with rocks, their eyes felt blasted by grit, as if tiny granules of sand were scratching and burning the whites. Their lips and the skin around them felt coated with a thick chemical film that left a stinging, sunburned sensation and caused the area to swell and pouch outward.

They glanced up quickly, “to see what had just blasted me and where it seemed to be coming from. I could see inside the SWDA through an opening in the untethered tarps which were attached only at the top of the cyclone fencing and were blowing sideways in the strong wind.”

The resident had the presence of mind to note the time – exactly 1:49 p.m. With their cell phone, they began to shoot photos and videos to clarify “where I was located when I encountered the gust of wind.” The photos were intended to “help [Navy and DTSC officials, who they contacted later] to understand what hit [them] with impact as they were passing the 1317 Gateview Ave. townhouse which sits inside the Westside SWDA.”

They did not know that MK II hand grenades and Japanese mortars were being “blown up in place” inside this toxic dump or that the Navy had positioned steel-lined shipping containers in rows to protect “non-essential workers” from “hazardous fragmentation.”

“Despite the double barrier of (two pairs of) glasses, I felt an immediate sharp burning sensation in my eyes, on the skin of my face, on my lips under my mask, on my scalp and on my hands and wrists.”

Neither their camera nor subsequent drone overflight photos captured images of shipping containers placed near townhouse 1317 to protect people passing outside the SWDA fence. They filmed the untethered tarp flying, flowing and blowing like a rectangular green flag from the cyclone fence.

Inside, “two yellow radiation signs swung horizontally in the direction of the wind on a rope hanging between two orange posts” surrounding a smaller isolated radiation cleanup area.

Between the radiation signs, they saw “almost a dozen” cleanup workers wearing orange and yellow vests, raising dust clouds in the distance as they scanned the dirt with metal detectors, before removing shards of metal and radioactive material from the dump.

“As I faced the front of the 1317 Gateview Ave. townhouse and looked about 20 to 30 feet further beyond those two radiation signs, I saw a 5-to-6-foot-high pile of dirt and debris abutting the outside wall of townhouse 1317. To the right of that smaller pile of dirt and debris was a much bigger pile of uncovered dirt, rocks and debris.”

They photographed tattered, shredded black garbage bag material twisted in the two piles of dirt lifting in the wind to the 1317 Gateview Avenue townhouse. Dust blew toward them from these barely covered piles. The resident wondered whether their reaction to this blast was pre-conditioned by irritation from toxins near the island’s other four cleanup zones where they often walked their dog.

“The sensation was instantly familiar. I had experienced it to a much lesser degree on previous outings to other neighboring areas, especially near the Halyburton-Bigelow Court SWDA, before and since the Navy said they completed cleanup there in July 2020.

“When I noticed the feeling previously, I would return home and wash my face. For hours, I would not be able to wash off the sensation of my lips being covered with a film – often until bedtime and sometimes not until the next day. At Halyburton Court, the feeling was milder. This time the film felt thicker and stronger.”

The resident told the companion, “This doesn’t feel safe. Let’s get out of here right away.” The friend agreed, “Let’s go.” The resident wheeled the few blocks home.

Desperate measures

Reaching their apartment, the resident changed clothing immediately, throwing everything they wore, including their jacket and head covering, into the washing machine.

Skin

The skin on their neck, around their ears and scalp and on the backs of their hands and wrists was red, irritated, and burned. Drinking water to rehydrate their body failed to soothe the sunburned, chemical burn sensation on their skin.

Face

Repeated attempts to wash the exposed and irritated areas of their face with mild soap failed to ease the burning.

Eye-of-Treasure-Island-resident-inflamed-red-from-unknown-substance-strike-0321, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
Reddened striations in a Treasure Island resident’s eye after it was struck by explosive shards or toxins on dust that shot out of a hole in the cleanup zone fence. – Photo: Treasure Island resident

Eyes

“The skin around my eyes hurt, especially in the inner lid-line.” The mirror reflected reddened striations in their eyes which felt as if tiny grains of dust, sand or metal shards were scratching and burning under the lids. They flushed with eye wash and squeezed drops into their eyes.

Swollen-lips-of-Treasure-Island-resident, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
The lips of a Treasure Island resident were swollen after they were struck by explosive shards or toxins on dust that shot out of a hole in the cleanup zone fence. – Photo: Treasure Island resident

Lips

The area surrounding their lips appeared reddened as if sunburned. This confused them. “We weren’t out that long, and I was only there for a second. So it didn’t make sense to me that I would be windburned or sunburned.”

Their lips and the skin around them were still “stinging very uncomfortably.” They felt swollen, “as though pouching out. My lips felt covered by a thickish film.” They tried without success to scrub it off. 

“I tried to soothe them further with cool compresses of milk-soaked paper towels folded up.” That did not ease the discomfort. 

Lungs

They had moved onto the island in 2007. Like many of their neighbors, they developed asthma and COPD during 14 years of inhaling the heavy dust that constantly blows around the island in the high winds. Every day, islanders wipe coatings of thick dust from car windows and surfaces in their homes. 

Particulate matter is kicked up by techs unburying toxins from cleanup zones and workers digging in construction areas with heavy equipment. The resident’s compromised lungs had been re-aggravated. “My lungs and throat were – and still are – irritated with a dry cough.”

Their little dog was licking its paws as if to remove something. The resident wiped down its fur and cleaned its feet. Their hospitalization on March 11, 2021, the week before for a diverticulitis flare, had left them too “wiped out” to bathe the dog or themselves.

Before falling exhausted into bed, they swabbed their hair with a damp cloth. They worried that when they turned in their sleep their hair would leave a chemical residue on the pillow and get into their eyes, on their lips, ears and face.

Second-victim-runs-across-Gateview-Avenue-by-Carol-Harvey-1400x785, Struck in the eyes, Local News & Views
A second victim suffered itchy, runny eyes and nose after running through the identical spot marked by the red star on Gateview Avenue where the resident was struck. – Photo: Carol Harvey

Struck twice

On April 14, 2021, two weeks later, a young, healthy person with no recent hospitalizations passed the opening in the fence where the untethered tarp was blowing, then crossed the street running through the identical spot where the resident was struck. The following day, April 15, 2021, they wondered if their runny, itchy eyes and nose could be a delayed reaction to “something on the island.” The symptoms lasted 25 minutes and disappeared.

Lingering health effects

For the resident, “discomforts did not go away.”

Whole body

Though all symptoms progressively improved, after four months they still did not feel right.

Face

In two weeks, the redness and swelling on their face had diminished only slightly. 

Lips II

On March 24, immediately after being struck, the skin around their lips was red. Their lips felt sunburned, swollen and thicker than usual. Repeated attempts to wash their lips and the surrounding skin and apply cool milk-soaked paper towels failed to ease the burning or sooth the swollen, “pouched out” feeling. 

Visits to townhouses 1315 and 1317 to take more pictures, “re-exacerbated my lips.” They left the site feeling their lips coated with a film they were compelled to wash off as soon as they reached home. 

Three weeks later, the skin on and around their lips remained irritated, slightly swollen and “sunburned.”

Two months later, in June and July, their lips still bothered them. “I could not get my lips to stop the burning and pouching out.”

Eyes

In July, their eyes still felt sore, uncomfortable and gritty. The red in the whites of their eyes turned pink. Pressing heated wet tea bag compresses to their lids provided their only relief from eye pain. Reading was painful. They worried their eyes were permanently harmed.

Seeking help

Their lungs continued to be hypersensitive. Fearing loss of their sight, the resident has attempted to understand what happened to them. They have repeatedly sought information from doctors, the Navy, the California Department of Public Health, and agents of the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, who promised help at the Feb. 8, 2021, Board of Supervisors hearing on Treasure Island toxicity.

Part B of “Struck in the eyes” will provide details about the aid and comfort the resident did and did not receive.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com.