Longtime resident and activist’s urine test found nine types of heavy metals
by Daphne Young
Antimony, rubidium, manganese, chromium, vanadium, copper, cadmium, zinc and uranium.
Arieann Harrison was in disbelief. Test results showed elevated levels of nine heavy metals in her body.
“All of the things that are in my system that are above reference range, can all be justifiably broken down to the things that are in our community,” Harrison said.
A native of San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, Harrison expected some toxins to be present in her body, but not at the levels shown. After all, she was her mother’s daughter.
Marie Harrison worked at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where a radiological defense laboratory operated from 1946 to 1969. Although it closed in 1974 and was added to the federal Superfund list, its impact remains ever present in the community. Both Harrisons have fought for environmental justice for their community.
When the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Foundation, Inc. set out to test 100 longtime Bayview Hunters Point residents, Harrison signed up with no hesitation.
“I’m scared,” Harrison said. “I’m scared not just for me, I’m scared for my children. And I’m scared for the children of the community.”
Doctors said they are finding high levels of toxic chemicals in the urine of many of the other residents participating in the study.
Toxicologist Dr. James Dalhgren, who works alongside Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai at the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring location on Third Street, described some of the chemicals found in Harrison’s body.
“Manganese is present in almost everybody that’s been tested,” Dahlgren said. “It is a chemical that arises from the shipyard.”
“Workers that work with manganese develop brain damage,” Dahlgren added. “Parkinson’s disease. It’s a terribly toxic material. The levels of manganese we’re finding in the people are as high as a manganese worker. So, it’s a big deal.”
About 60 longtime residents have had their urine tested. Each resident paid $130 out of pocket, or via insurance, to find out what levels of toxic chemicals were in their bodies.
“We’re not getting support to do that,” Harrison said. “The places that are meant to help us have caused us more harm. I’m saying everybody that was supposed to be overseers of the environment was asleep at the wheel.”
Other chemicals and heavy metals that were found in Harrison and other Bayview residents’ urine include antimony and rubidium.
“Antimony is toxic to the brain,” Dahlgren said. “Rubidium is radioactive and cancer causing.”
And, then there’s chromium.
The toxins found in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard are even more deadly than those found in the Brockovich case.
“Chromium was the poison in the Brockovich case,” Dahlgren said. “Chromium is super toxic and super carcinogenic and it’s elevated in Arieann’s urine. And, it’s one of the contaminants in the shipyard.”
Dahlgren was an expert witness in the Erin Brockovich case and he adds that the toxins found in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard are even more deadly than those found in the Brockovich case.
“With the Brockovich case, it was a small area,” Dahlgren said. “People lived on small farms and acreage. The total number of plaintiffs that got any money was about 150 people, although it ended up being about 500 people who weren’t a part of the movie. In Bayview we’re talking about thousands of people.”
Harrison is a 54-year-old mother and grandmother who’s lived and worked her whole life in Bayview Hunters Point.
She graduated from School of the Arts and attended City College of San Francisco, went to work and raised her family of four. But she’s most well known for following in her mothers’ footsteps as an environmental activist.
Marie Harrison, her mother, was one of the original environmental justice watchdogs who led the campaign to shut down the Pacific Gas & Electric plant back in the 1970s and was instrumental in advocating for an investigation into the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard radioactive contamination and cover-up.
Marie Harrison was known for attending press conferences with an oxygen tank in tow because she had a pulmonary disease, yet she never smoked.
“My grandfather worked all over that shipyard,” Harrison said. “He was great at fixing things.” Harrison recalled seeing many boils on her grandfather’s skin.
Her mother’s death in 2019 convinced Harrison that she and other Bayview Hunters Point residents were exposed and harmed by toxic chemicals coming from the shipyard.
After all, Marie Harrison and her grandfather worked at the shipyard. “My grandfather worked all over that shipyard,” Harrison said. “He was great at fixing things.” Harrison recalled seeing many boils on her grandfather’s skin.
“At the time we had no idea how badly he was exposed out there at the shipyard,” Harrison said. “But, when he died from cancer many years later, after only living here in the Bayview, we all knew that the toxic conditions out at the Navy shipyard had to have contributed to their health problems.”
In the end, the Navy failed to clean up the toxic waste left behind. The odds that dangerous radioactive materials and chemicals remain in the neighborhood till this day are high.
That’s why Harrison says it’s important to continue her mother’s legacy.
Doing the work
In 2021, Harrison founded the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, Inc. to continue her mother’s environmental justice advocacy.
Harrison, like her mother, now attends meetings with state and city government officials, conducts outreach in the community to help educate residents about the toxic environmental past and partners with Greenaction, a grassroots environmental organization, to challenge polluters and government agencies to change policies and practices and better promote environmental justice.
Harrison took part in a rally at City Hall on June 2, 2022, to call for the city officials to act on a new San Francisco Civil Grand Jury calling for an oversight committee for the shipyard.
“Bottom line, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that this community is not taken advantage of and make sure that those who continue to downplay the importance of our lives are made to realize that ‘We do matter,’” Harrison said.
Harrison walked into the Office of Mayor London Breed and requested a meeting to discuss the Civil Grand Jury report. She has yet to hear back.
Advocacy is just one avenue. Court is another.
Earlier this year, a district court judge ruled in favor for 350 homeowners in a $6.3 million class action lawsuit against the developers of land once part of the shipyard. It was the first monetary win for the community.
“These residents deserve a win,” Harrison said. The developers, Lennar and Five Point, never disclosed that the site was contaminated and had not been cleaned up properly by Tetra Tech EC, which was charged with cleaning the site and has denied any wrongdoing.
“It’s a big victory for a lot of reasons,” said Ann Marie Murphy, an attorney with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy. “One is it’s getting $6.3 million into the hands of our clients. In some cases well over $20,000. In others a few hundred,” added Murphy.
For Harrison, the victory is bittersweet. “It’s good that these residents at least had the means to afford to fight in court,” Harrison said. “But, most people who’ve lived in Bayview all their life can’t afford to pay to fight these big companies.”
“Science needs to point to our bodies, not just property.”
Harrison is among the 38,484 residents who are a part of a pending class action lawsuit being led by the law firm Bonner & Bonner.
The $27 billion lawsuit is targeting Tetra Tech for failing to clean up the 500-acre shipyard and misleading the public about the contamination and toxic waste.
“Now we have the technology to validate what we’ve been saying all along,” Harrison said. “We’ve been hollering about this for years. But, science needs to point to our bodies, not just property.”
Mother of a movement
“No settlement amount can justify what residents have been exposed to and lived with over the years,” Harrison said.
“Someone should be held accountable for the environmental contamination and harm that’s been done to those who have lived in Bayview for decades. There should be some kind of reparations for residents who lived here or have passed on unrecognized when they were telling them they were sick,” Harrison said.
Harrison is dealing with her own health issues. The urine test led her to get more done. Results are still pending on those tests at press time.
In the meantime, she will get her urine tested for a second time to see if there’s any change.
Her overarching goal is to make “the Mother of the Movement for Environmental Justice” proud of her work.
“My mother may have been the one who helped start this fight, but we want to be the generation that ends it,” Harrison said. “It’s not over yet, and I want to see some closure to her work. We don’t want another legacy of chemical and toxic waste.”
Daphne Young is the Education Reporter at the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper. The Chicago native is an award-winning journalist who’s covered news for radio and TV stations around the country. She attended San Francisco State University and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. If you have an education story that you’d like to see the Bay View cover, please contact Daphne by email: email@example.com.
The City College of San Francisco Journalism Department produced this article. This project was supported by California Humanities Emerging Journalist Fellowship Program. For more information, visit www.calhum.org.
Any views or findings expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of California Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.