A Tetra Tech whistleblower attorney, environmental doctor, Hunters Point activist and investigative reporter establish the inextricable link between Treasure Island and Hunters Point in the Navy’s toxic contamination of two Superfund sites
by Carol Harvey, Investigative Reporter
During a Friday, May 20, 2022, virtual panel discussion (embedded below) sponsored by the San Francisco City College Journalism Department, student reporter Garrett Leahy posed probing questions of four experts: Tetra Tech whistleblower attorney David Anton, environmental physician James Dahlgren, MD, Hunters Point resident activist Arieann Harrison and Treasure Island investigative reporter Carol Harvey.
Their conversation confirmed the inextricable link between Treasure Island and Hunters Point, exposing the Navy’s liability for the contamination of the two Superfund sites with radiation, chemicals and heavy metals that have caused illness and death among resident low-income people and people of color. The following article is a paraphrased version of the meeting.
Garrett Leahy: Welcome! I’m Garrett Leahy, participant in the Emerging Journalist Fellowship Initiative, a California Humanities project funded by the Mellon Foundation, sponsored by City College of San Francisco Journalism Department Chair Juan Gonzales and faculty advisor Alex Mullaney.
Whistleblower attorney David Anton, James Dahlgren, MD, Arieann Harrison, environmental activist, and Carol Harvey, investigative journalist, will discuss environmental justice connecting two San Francisco neighborhoods, Treasure Island and Bayview Hunters Point.
David Anton, discrimination and whistleblower attorney, who helped uncover malfeasance by Navy contractor Tetra Tech at Hunters Point, also exposed wrongdoing at Treasure Island. Anton represents nearly a dozen radiation workers who came forward and blew the whistle on falsification of dangerously high radiation levels at both San Francisco Superfund sites.
James Dahlgren, M.D. treated occupational and environmental poisoning victims for 50 years and works with Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai in her Hunters Point biomonitoring program.
Arieann Harrison, Bayview Hunters Point resident and “results-driven activist,” established the Marie Harrison Community Foundation honoring her mother, who was a preeminent environmental justice advocate until her passing in 2019.
Through her foundation, Arieann works tirelessly on environmental justice initiatives that impact the Bayview Hunters Point community. She was instrumental in bringing contamination from the cement-crushing recycling plants to the attention of the District 10 supervisor and getting them shut down.
Reporter Carol Harvey covers Treasure Island environmental racism and Navy contamination of soil and groundwater with radiation, chemicals and heavy metals, toxins that cause illnesses and deaths. She helped attorney Stanley Goff write a $2 billion class action lawsuit alleging fraud by the Navy, the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) and property manager John Stewart, entities who profit from exposure of residents to toxins.
Panelists, starting with Carol Harvey, please compare Navy toxins at Bayview Hunters Point and Treasure Island and describe the risks.
The Navy made Treasure Island radioactive and forced people to live there
Carol Harvey: The Navy ran atomic, biological and chemical warfare (ABC) schools that saturated Treasure Island soil, groundwater and air with radiation, chemicals and heavy metals.
Navy training in radioactive material included the use of plutonium, cesium-137, radium-226 and other radioisotopes.
Sailors were taught to deploy the chemical weapons VX, Sarin and mustard, toxic gasses that kill entire populations. Chemicals were also left in the soil when the Navy burned garbage in pits at the shoreline that faces the Golden Gate Bridge.
Navy operations produced the heavy metals lead, mercury and arsenic as well.
In 1965 the Navy graded the pits, constructing townhouses over the toxic soil. For years, Navy and civilian residents have become sick from poisons beneath their homes.
In the 1990s, the EPA-mandated a cleanup. The Navy fenced off five remediation zones – three along the shore and two inland – reassuring residents the toxins were contained.
In 2013, after reporters dug up cesium-137 outside the cleanup zones, the California Department of Public Health “suggested” the Navy improve its radiation search.
Twenty-seven years later, in summer 2022, the Navy will remove the fence around the last cleanup zone.
Garrett Leahy: In the Bay View newspaper, you wrote the Navy excavated 1,200 radioactive objects across the island, and in 2019, workers dug a basketball-sized chunk of irradiated soil from under a resident’s doorstep.
Carol Harvey: Yes. On Treasure Island, the Navy locating radiation beneath a doorstep or a yard is a common occurrence.
Environmental justice for Bayview Hunters Point
Garrett Leahy: Arieann Harrison, could you describe Bayview Hunters Point’s contaminants and resident exposures?
Arieann Harrison: I’m passionate about Bayview Hunters Point’s human rights and health issues.
Our community has been overlooked, disenfranchised, burdened and steadily impacted and inundated with toxic chemical, radioactive and industrial waste by notorious big-scale industrial polluters like the former PG&E plant and cement-crushing recycle companies in the “Circle of Death” surrounding us. It’s a problem for diverse low-income communities of color that California doesn’t enforce environmental laws.
For decades, BVHP mothers said: “I’m sick. My kids are sick.” What’s different now is that we’re including the science.
We’re ingesting chemicals through biomagnification, the accumulation and concentration of toxins in our bodies from food and water exposure. I’m breathing poisons through my nose and lungs, getting it on my skin, carrying it around, opening my window and allowing it in to affect my children.
At 730 Innes, the shipyard was my backyard. My son, Giovanni, had recurring nosebleeds. My urinalysis tox screen shows above reference range copper, manganese, rubidium, thallium, vanadium and radiation.
The nation’s highest rate of respiratory disease and cancer is concentrated right here on the hill.
I cannot sit idly by seeing pictures of the preposterous development plans for Hunters Point. Wouldn’t it make sense to clean up the radioactive waste? Property values would rise, peoples’ health improve and you wouldn’t be putting something pretty over something that can kill.
Navy toxins connect Treasure Island and Hunters Point
Garrett Leahy: David Anton, you understand contaminants and exposures on both bases.
David Anton: The former bases are the same, but have dramatically different histories. The military took both bases in World War II.
The Navy spread contaminated dust and left a tremendous amount of radioactivity from ships and four decades of radioactive experiments in Hunters Point soil.
In the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Hunters Point was the central spot to conduct radioactive research for military defense and offense. A research base was established with around 1,200 people working with radioactivity in science and related areas.
A marshy parcel was filled with animal bodies that had been subjected to radioactive experiments along with large hunks of metal from ships exposed to atomic explosions at the Bikini Islands and massive amounts of radioactive material that was sandblasted off those ships.
Military facilities at Los Alamos and the western United States shipped radioactive waste to Hunters Point. Some went into the landfill. At least 18,000 55-gallon drums of radioactive waste along with the radioactive aircraft carrier, Independence, were sunk and now contaminate the ocean floor near the Farallon islands.
Navy handling of dangerous radioactivity at Hunters Point and Treasure Island was incredibly sloppy. In base closure EPA-mandated cleanups, the Navy “forgot” decades of radioactive history and remediated only small amounts of radioactive material. For years, the Navy promised, “We’ll cover it. It’s not dangerous.”
The Navy operated facilities on Treasure Island using radiation sources thousands of times more toxic than at Hunters Point.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s in Building 3, a large aircraft carrier-looking building, the Navy developed extremely intense radium coating on metal discs used in thousands of night vision goggles.
Radioactive coating on many discs was defective. Broken discs went into the trash.
Radioactive material was burned in a large incinerator. Though its records document radioactive ash in the incinerator, and the highly radioactive discs were thrown in big trenches as well, the Navy did what’s cheaper and easier – not what’s right.
The Navy operated facilities on Treasure Island using radiation sources thousands of times more toxic than at Hunters Point. – Attorney David Anton
As Carol reported, they graded over pits containing radioactive materials. Building townhouses for sailors’ families on this radioactive soil was cheaper than shipping the toxic waste to facilities.
When the base closed in 1997, unaware it was an incredibly contaminated toxic dump, San Francisco eased its housing shortage by sending children, elders and homeless people to Treasure Island.
Before 2006, the Navy told the EPA there was no history of radioactivity on Treasure Island besides the 1939 World’s Fair radium buttons.
Radioactive contamination was found, as Carol said, all across Treasure Island, not just where housing is located.
In 2007, workers who thought they wouldn’t find anything were sent in to do radiation scans. Their machines went crazy measuring extremely high radiation levels near houses with families and children. I began representing the workers who discovered the radioactivity. They informed me, and I became concerned.
Workers were ordered not to scan around or under buildings. The Navy didn’t want it exposed that people had been living over radiation. That basketball-sized radioactive material was identified in 2007.
Lack of concern for peoples’ health left it buried there until 2019. It’s a disaster. Children living on top of radioactive waste got leukemia. Under the seesaw in a park, radioactivity was so extreme that the Navy couldn’t figure out how to remove it safely.
Treasure Island water quality is a disaster.
The Navy said, “It’s safe. We’re taking care of it.” That’s not the case.
Long term exposure to radioactivity is dangerous. If you get it in your mouth, your nose or your body, you’re in trouble.
Treasure Island chemicals exceed chemicals at Hunters Point. Firefighting training classes prepared sailors to deal with ship fires. C-8 chemicals in foam they used to douse fires is incredibly toxic, longterm, difficult to get out and very contaminating to water. Treasure Island water quality is a disaster.
It’s a shame the Navy turned its back on the damage it caused. It expended zero effort tracking families’ health. Nor are workers told they have risks.
The Navy has not disclosed any of this to the public. Development at Hunters Point and Treasure Island will churn up soil again, exposing more people and workers to hazards.
Racial injustice predominates at Treasure Island and Hunters Point
Garrett Leahy: Arieann, In Bayview Hunters Point, there have been a few lawsuits, including one where a settlement was awarded recently for $6.3 million to the plaintiffs of a class action lawsuit regarding contamination under homeowners’ homes in Hunters Point. Does this victory represent a pivot in the struggle for environmental justice?
Arieann Harrison: It validated what people have said for a long time. However, new homeowners won this lawsuit based on property values falling. Can we put human beings above property? What about the quality of our lives going down from toxins in our bodies?
Note: Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy filed a class action lawsuit for Bayview Hunters Point condo buyers. Bonner & Bonner filed another class action lawsuit for 9,000 Bayview Hunters Point residents.
I don’t think advocating for reparations is asking too much. It’s ridiculous that African American females in their 20s are diagnosed with breast cancer. Bayview Hunters Point residents need long term care to remove the poisons from our systems.
Carol Harvey: Can I piggyback on something Arieann said?
Former mayor Willie Brown decided San Francisco would solve its perennial homeless problem – which is unattractive to tourists – by farming homeless, mostly poor and people of color, to Treasure Island.
Garrett Leahy: You can. Then I’ll ask your thoughts on the class action suit for Treasure Island residents.
Carol Harvey: David was generous about the City’s decision to put people on Treasure Island in the ‘90s –
Garrett Leahy: During Willie Brown’s tenure as mayor.
Carol Harvey: Exactly. My Bay View articles hold Willie Brown responsible. Brown decided San Francisco would solve its perennial homeless problem – which is unattractive to tourists – by farming homeless, mostly poor and people of color, to Treasure Island in subsidized programs to “fix” their drug problems and mental illness.
Three-quarters of islanders are people of color – African American, Hispanic and Asian. The largest subgroup is Hispanic; the smallest, low-income Caucasians. All these vulnerable groups develop tumors, seizures, cancers, heart failure, heart attacks and respiratory problems from toxic dust.
While Arieann and David were speaking, I thought of an African-American resident who suffered strokes and underwent heart bypass surgery after living near two radiation cleanup sites, a 10-year-old Pacific Islander boy who died of a brain tumor after exposure to his dog who also succumbed to enormous tumors most likely from digging in the backyard, and art student Violet Andry, who suffered neurological damage and seizures living next to a radiation cleanup zone in 2007. Fifteen years later in 2022, Violet still experiences tremors, nausea, dizziness and inability to stand.
Garrett Leahy: The class action lawsuit alleges the Navy doesn’t disclose contamination to residents before they move in.
Carol Harvey: That’s right. Residents show me leases. I have never met anyone who was told in advance the place is toxic. John Stewart’s website to this day advertises beautiful apartments in a stunning setting.
Stanley Goff verifies the suit is advancing through the courts.
Garrett Leahy: Welcome, Dr. James Dahlgren! You have years of expertise with environmental toxicology and are involved in a biomonitoring project detecting heavy metals and other contaminants in residents’ urine.
James Dahlgren: Several months ago, I joined Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai, who has done a brilliant job putting this program together.
Genova, our North Carolina laboratory, set values for “normal people.” Looking at Hunters Point biomonitoring results, people are way above “normal.”
They’re even higher than in California and the United States. California’s Office of Health Hazard Evaluation’s biomonitoring project (EOHHA) found some of the same metals that Dr. Sumchai and I have monitored. Their levels are far lower than our laboratory results.
Data shows that people closest to the shipyard have high radioactive chemical values in their urine – uranium, cesium and strontium.
People along the border show increased cancer rates. Breast and brain radiation-induced cancers are in excess.
In the ‘90s, a breast cancer study found levels in younger BVHP women much higher than in any study in the United States or around the world.
We now know plutonium was made by atomic bombs and would have been a major contaminating factor when the Navy was sandblasting those ships. It doesn’t take much plutonium to cause increases in breast cancer.
A San Francisco Health Department study in the ‘90s found a high rate of lung cancer around Bayview Hunters Point. They speculated people smoke more, never considering plutonium as a well-known cause. In studies, one billionth of a gram of plutonium causes a hundred percent of animals to develop lung cancer.
This is not isolated to Hunters Point. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the Navy used high-pressure steam to sandblast radioactive ships, radiation blew into the air and traveled miles, probably causing increased cancer rates in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco.
Viewers ask whether it’s safe to visit or live on Treasure Island?
Garrett Leahy: A question from the chat. Carol and David, if people ride the ferry to the island, should they worry about contamination?
David Anton: Avoid it if it’s windy and construction is going on. Radioactive material blows in the wind. The big problem is regular exposure or getting it inside your body by breathing or touching it.
Never drink the water. Take bottled water.
Be careful about eating anything exposed to wind. If you go to a restaurant, eat inside. Don’t use food trucks. Put covers over your shoes.
Carol Harvey: For years, I’ve tromped around shooting videos. I’m not sick, but speaking into my video camera, my voice gets hoarse within a few blocks.
Wear a mask. Dust alone can clog your lungs and heart. Chemicals, radiological materials and heavy metals ride on dust.
Booties are a good idea. If you kick up dust in bare dirt, you’ll track it home on your shoes. Never drink the water. Take bottled water.
Arieann Harrison: Can I put into the universe that Bayview is pushing for San Francisco to become an AB 617 community. Contact me if you’re interested in Christina Garcia’s 2017 Assembly Bill 617 addressing pollution in environmental justice communities, advocating for funding to do the work ourselves so we won’t have to depend on the government for things like measuring air quality.
Thank you for creating a platform on these issues.
Garrett Leahy: We appreciate your time sharing your expertise regarding Bayview Hunters Point and Treasure Island.
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.