Toxic Acres: How the Navy Poisoned Treasure Island

June 4th, 2006 - by admin

Ron Russell / SF Weekly – 2006-06-04 07:50:17

SAN FRANCISCO ( May 24, 2006) — The sun is disappearing behind the Golden Gate Bridge, the lights of San Francisco’s skyline are shimmering in the early-evening twilight, and Chris Grasteit, who has come home to his rented four-bedroom townhouse on Treasure Island, is savoring the moment.

“You’d have to be a fool not to appreciate a view like this,” says the divorced father of three children. He’s surveying a million-dollar vista from the apartment he and the kids share in what once was military housing before the former Treasure Island Naval Air Station closed in 1997. From his place on Westside Drive, near the island’s northwest corner, nearby Alcatraz — barely two miles across the water — is close enough that some of the neighbors complain that its foghorn keeps them awake at night.

Home to some 2,000 people, the cluster of ex-military townhouses on the man-made island at the edge of the ghostly former naval facility constitutes one of the city’s more unusual — to say nothing of overlooked — neighborhoods.

Ever since 1999, when the crescent-shaped tract at the island’s windy north end opened as city-controlled rental units barely two years after the last Navy families moved out, people have flocked there for the views and for the solitude of living in the middle of the bay, not to mention the relatively cheap rents. “Where else in the city could I find a four-bedroom this nice for $2,300 a month, utilities paid?” Grasteit asks. They live side by side with formerly homeless people drawn by another incentive: generous housing subsidies through the nonprofit Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative, known as TIHDI, a collaborative of some 20 agencies.

But another feature of the neighborhood — the fact that it is built atop contaminated soil that dates back to when the Navy first moved onto Treasure Island during World War II — is, perhaps understandably, less talked about. That, along with what some view as the artificial island’s vulnerability — at least in its current condition — to a major earthquake, has prompted a few critics to question whether anyone should currently be living there at all.

Eventually, under a grandiose real estate development plan for the island being advanced by a group that includes political consultant Darius Anderson, Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, and home-building giant Lennar Corp., the environmentally suspect 90-acre portion of the island where Grasteit and his neighbors live will be unoccupied.

Among the most ambitious real estate developments in the city’s history, the plan is to create a self-sustaining miniature city of 15,000 or more residents on the island. It is to include high-rise and mid-rise residential towers — including a signature high-rise of perhaps 50 stories or more — hotels, a conference center, shops, restaurants, and an immense open space a third the size of Golden Gate Park.

The plan, which has thus far garnered generally favorable reviews from environmentalists, assumes that a long-hoped-for transfer of ownership of the island from the Navy to the city takes place. It also assumes that the two entities reach a deal on just how much the transfer costs, including who pays to clean up the environmental mess left behind from half a century of military use.

All of which brings us back to Grasteit’s island neighborhood.

Dubbed “Area 12” on maps the Navy devised to help clean up toxic waste on the island — much of it discovered since the base closed — the former base housing tract occupies an area once dedicated to ammunition bunkers and solid waste dumps. As military records show, in the 1950s and ’60s, before any of the units were built, part of the neighborhood also was the site of a training facility for decontaminating radioactive waste.

As part of the island’s transformation, the houses in Area 12 are to be demolished, the soil beneath them cleaned up, and the entire area is to be transformed as part of a so-called “Great Park,” replete with hiking trails, wetlands, and ball fields.

But unlike the rest of the island, where most of the $100 million the Navy claims to have spent so far on environmental cleanup has been focused, Area 12 isn’t scheduled to be uninhabited for up to 10 years after construction of the “new” Treasure Island begins. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which calls for construction to start in 2009, people could be living there until 2019 or beyond. “I really do find that to be unconscionable. It seems as if we may be playing roulette with people’s lives,” says San Francisco attorney Eugene Brodsky, a longtime island watchdog who serves on a citizen advisory board for Treasure Island.

While acknowledging the ongoing environmental issues in Area 12 — huge chunks of which have been fenced off — the Navy as well as state environmental officials insist that residents are not exposed to unacceptable risk.

“The areas behind the fences are a different story, but the rest of the areas we’re looking at — how shall I put it — I won’t say are free of contamination; but rather, they’re relatively low, benign levels,” says David Rist, of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the Navy’s cleanup.

Yet, the slowness with which the Navy has approached the cleanup effort within Area 12 in the seven years since renters were allowed to move in, and the discovery of potentially harmful levels of toxic materials over that time in spots where such levels were previously thought not to exist, have contributed to skepticism. “No one will really know what’s under [that neighborhood] until they dig it up and see what’s there once the housing is gone,” says Dale Smith, who has long served on a restoration advisory board for Treasure Island. The warning signs of the neighborhood’s checkered environmental past are hard to miss — literally. Near the intersection of Gateway Avenue and Avenue B, for example, in a spot well suited to caution motorists about children at play, a sign warns that “this area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Similar warnings are scattered throughout the community.

Entire buildings are cordoned off behind green fences that bear somewhat understated disclaimers describing the areas as under “environmental investigation.” In one of the fenced-off spots, testing in 2000 revealed polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the soil at nearly 100,000 times the level deemed acceptable by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Since the 1970s, when most PCB production was banned, medical studies have linked the family of chemical compounds to immune system and nervous disorders as well as forms of cancer. Experts say humans may be exposed to PCBs through direct physical contact, ingestion, or, since PCBs may volatilize, through breathing air contaminated by them.

Similarly, there have been discoveries of dioxins, a family of compounds linked to birth defects and developmental abnormalities in children, beneath the playground at Treasure Island Middle School — recently closed for unrelated cost-cutting reasons. In 2002, after digging up the playground at a day-care center at the eastern edge of the neighborhood and replacing it with uncontaminated soil, the Navy acknowledged that a dioxin “hot spot” remains beneath the foundation of the building. The center, opened in 1985 when the base was still operating, serves mostly children whose parents are part of the TIHDI program.

Both the Navy and state health officials say that potentially harmful levels of PCBs, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxins, and other suspect chemical substances discovered in the neighborhood are almost entirely either under the foundations of buildings, where they pose no immediate risk, or are confined to the fenced-off areas. Nonetheless, before moving in, tenants must agree not to dig in the soil, not to plant anything that isn’t in a raised container, and not even to allow their pets to “dig or disturb the bare soil” in their yards.

Saul Bloom, who heads the environmental group Arc Ecology, and who argued against the city using the housing for rentals while serving on a base reuse commission in the 1990s, still questions whether the rental units should be there. “I believed that it was inappropriate to open that area [to rental housing] then, and nothing I’ve learned since then has made me feel more comfortable,” he says.

From almost any angle, the view from Emily Rapaport’s apartment gives her pause. Like a lot of her neighbors, the unemployed medical researcher’s decision to move to Treasure Island four years ago was based partly on economics and partly on the allure of island living. But she freely acknowledges that if she had children, she wouldn’t stick around.

“It isn’t reassuring to live in a jumble of warning signs,” says Rapaport, who confines her vegetable gardening to a few large containers scattered across the patio of her townhouse. The pots are courtesy of the John Stewart Co., the firm contracted by the Treasure Island Development Authority, the ostensible state agency whose board is appointed by San Francisco’s mayor to administer the rental housing.

Rapaport doesn’t have far to look for signs of trouble. Her building just off 13th Street is directly beside perhaps the most notorious fenced-off contamination zone in the entire neighborhood — a group of 24 abandoned apartment units clustered around a weed-strewn common area known as Halyburton Court.

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