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First published:

SF Weekly | May 24, 2006

Entire buildings are cordoned off behind green fences that bear somewhat understated disclaimers describing the areas as under "environmental investigation."

Top: Treasure Island, with Area 12 housing section in foreground | New York Times


Above: Treasure Island, with  Yerba Buena Island at bottom of frame | USGS photo


Below: View from Yerba Buena Island, with Treasure Island administration building, built as an airport terminal, in foreground | Creative Commons



Toxic Island

The Navy was supposed to clean up the environmental mess left behind at the former Treasure Island Naval Air Station. So why are residents there still living atop contaminated soil?



By Ron Russell


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.


According to Navy records, when a military cleanup team first investigated Halyburton in the fall of 1999, there was "no historical information" to indicate that chemical releases were a problem there. But investigators were in for a surprise. Soil testing revealed potentially unsafe levels of PAHs, and extraordinarily high concentrations of PCBs — up to 19,000 parts per million. The federal EPA regards anything beyond .22 parts per million as unacceptable.


The find was troubling enough to prompt the Navy team to dig up part of the playground at Treasure Island Elementary School, next door to Halyburton Court, during winter break that year. Navy records say that nothing significant was found during the trenching, but records also reveal that neither was any chemical sampling conducted on the school property.


The next summer, the Navy dug up and replaced 11,300 cubic yards of contaminated soil from Halyburton Court. But the deserted and overgrown enclave-within-a-neighborhood by no means enjoys a clean bill of health. As recently as last December, the same month that San Francisco Unified School District abruptly shuttered the elementary school (the middle school had already been closed) to cut costs, new tests within Halyburton Court revealed PCB levels of up to 1.5 parts per million, well in excess of acceptable health standards.


The units there, dating to the mid-1960s, are among the oldest structures in Area 12, built on the site of an old storage yard. Navy officials cannot say for certain what may have been the source of the off-the-charts PCB levels. Speculation is that they most likely derive from hydraulic fluids or leaky electrical equipment, says James Sullivan, the Navy's base-closure environmental coordinator for Treasure Island.


Sullivan insists that neither Halyburton Court nor any of the other fenced-off areas represent an unacceptable health risk to the residents of Area 12. "We're confident that the steps we've taken along with the city and state agencies to restrict access to certain areas sufficiently limits exposure for residents," he says.


But that may assume that the fences actually keep people out.


"You've got people going into [the restricted areas] all the time," says Melanie Williams, 38, a formerly homeless mother of three children who was among the first tenants to move to the island seven years ago. She and others complain that Halyburton Court and other closed-off "environmental investigation" areas have become magnets for illicit activities, including drug-dealing and prostitution.


"They're like squats," says another longtime tenant, who asked not to be identified. "You see people going into [cordoned-off] units with sleeping bags. They party in there. Cars show up late at night and people get out and just disappear."


The intrusions aren't restricted to nighttime. On a recent visit, two teenagers could be seen skateboarding in a cordoned-off zone along the northwestern waterfront, not far from where there was a large hole in the fence. Residents say adults have been known to dig up plants in the off-limits zones for transplanting in their yards. "I doubt that the fences are any more of a barrier to contaminants than they are to people," says Emily Rapaport.


As for Halyburton Court, Navy officials say that none of the units were made available for lease before the contamination was discovered there. But that doesn't speak to the potential exposure of countless military families who resided in Halyburton Court and other now-off-limits units where high levels of contaminants have been found, from the 1960s until the base closed in 1997.


Asked about them, Sullivan, the environmental coordinator, says that there are no records available indicating who lived in what units. "We no longer have any records at the base or anywhere else that would tell us that," he says.




In contrast to Halyburton and other ex-housing quarters where environmental conditions are suspect, no visible evidence remains of another neighborhood legacy — the radiological training school that existed there from 1957 to 1969. The facility occupied several acres in the neighborhood's southwest corner, facing the San Francisco shoreline. The spot is now home to dozens of families living on Westside Drive and at the south end of heavily built-out Gateway Avenue.


The Navy began radiological warfare instruction on Treasure Island in 1946, at about the same time the U.S. military began conducting landmark nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The training went "live" in 1957 with the "commissioning" of the USS Pandemonium, a full-scale, above-the-waterline mockup of a 173-foot-long patrol craft. Built from salvage, the fake ship was plopped on the island for a singular purpose: to train sailors how to deal with radioactive contamination.


During the last several years the mock-up was in use, the exercises conducted there used short-lived radioactive isotopes with half-lives of only a few weeks. Records show that the training drills consisted of spreading radioactive material over the ship's surface and having sailors spray and scrub it down until it was decontaminated. Contaminated wastewater that didn't seep into the ground was funneled into huge above-ground tanks and stored until the water was no longer considered harmful, and then dumped into the bay through a drain pipe.


But during the Pandemonium's early years, until 1963, highly radioactive cesium-137 was routinely placed aboard the vessel in sealed containers in at least 11 locations, Navy documents show. Using cables from a central position, an instructor would withdraw one or more of the cesium sources from shielded wells, enabling students with monitoring equipment to locate "radioactivity" during training exercises.


In 1970, the ship was hauled to the northeast corner of the island away from the present-day housing tract, and the area was cleared to build more houses for base personnel. "I doubt that anybody ever even knew what had been there; I don't remember anyone in our family ever mentioning it," says Brett MacLean, 38, a self-described Navy brat who spent part of his teen years on Westside Drive during the 1970s.


Similarly, none of several persons interviewed for this story currently living on the site says they were aware that their home is on the location of a former decontamination facility. (It is not mentioned as part of the disclosures provided by the John Stewart Co.)


The Navy has given the site more or less a clean bill of health. But like other aspects of the lengthy and ongoing remediation effort at the former base, its assurances depends more on archival evidence than exhaustive field testing. In 2001, the Navy conducted radiological monitoring at 581 test trenches scattered across Area 12. But it has thus far resisted trenching within four identified former solid waste disposal areas, one of which cuts through the middle of the former decontamination site.


In a report released in February, the Navy variously declared that there is "no evidence" and "no documentation" to suggest that radiological materials were disposed of in the former solid waste sites. As for the use of cesium-137 at the training facility, the Navy's long-awaited radiological assessment contends that "throughout the history of the USS Pandemonium, no mention was ever made to indicate a problem" with the use of cesium. Acknowledging the paucity of records related to a former training site that went out of existence more than three decades ago, the report allowed as how the cesium's seals "were required to be leak-checked every six months."


The same report yields new information about the Navy's handling of a radium spill in another area of the base in January 1950, in which at least five students and other personnel were exposed. In that incident, a capsule containing about 40 milligrams of the highly radioactive material was inadvertently dropped in a laboratory at Building No. 233, a long-vacant, two-story wooden structure near the southeast corner of the island. It is deemed to have been the most serious radiological breach at the former base for which there is a record.


In a summary of the incident, the Navy referred to surfaces inside the building that couldn't be decontaminated as part of the cleanup operation. Last year, Dale Smith, the restoration advisory panel member, sought to know what became of the materials. The reply: that more than 200 barrels of radioactive waste generated from the spill was stored aboard the USS Independence at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard and later — the report does not say when — weighted with concrete and "sunk at sea."


After more than half a century, and despite Building No. 233's having been cleared for reuse within a year, the decrepit structure across the street from a little league ball field has recently come under renewed scrutiny as part of the Navy's overall cleanup of the island in preparation for its presumed transfer to the city of San Francisco. Barely a month ago, after years of open access, the Navy erected a fence around it.




As for Area 12, not only does it harbor some of the most troublesome environmental pollution yet to be dealt with as part of the Navy cleanup, it's also perhaps the most seismically vulnerable part of the 405-acre island. Originally conceived as a site for San Francisco's airport and home to the Golden Gate International Exposition that opened in 1939, the island was constructed in the 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To build it, the engineers dredged 29 million cubic yards of material — most of it sand — from the bottom of the bay and entombed it behind a perimeter rock dike.


Like the Marina District and other areas of the city built on fill, the entire island during a severe earthquake is susceptible to liquefaction, a phenomenon in which ground-shaking causes porous soil to turn mushy and collapse. In addition, geotechnical studies show that the areas closest to the dike — including much, if not all, of the housing area that hugs the northwest shoreline — are vulnerable to lateral spreading, in which ground-failure along a slope, in this case the dike, could be expected to spread laterally toward the island's interior.


Both phenomena occurred on Treasure Island during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Damage assessments compiled for the Navy describe "sand boils" appearing in the northern part of the island, a tell-tale sign of liquefaction in the underlying soil, and huge cracks several feet long in parking lots. Lateral spreading was blamed for some 44 gas, sewage, and water line breaks that disrupted services on the then-still-occupied base for up to three days after the quake.


The Loma Prieta quake registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. U.S. Geological Survey data indicate that ground motion on Treasure Island was among the strongest recorded in the Bay Area, despite the island's being some 60 miles from the epicenter.


However, the 1990 report compiled for the Navy following the earthquake, and obtained by SF Weekly, suggests that what happened on the island in 1989 pales compared to what could happen there during a similar or more powerful quake along either the San Andreas or Hayward faults with an epicenter closer than Loma Prieta.


It warned that such a quake could cause "substantially more severe shaking" on the island; that "liquefaction [could be] expected to be widespread," and that lateral spreading accompanied by liquefaction poses "a significant risk of widespread distress to the perimeter areas of the island during future large earthquakes."


The document concluded that "unless remedial measures to the dikes are implemented," lateral spreading during a magnitude 8 quake on the San Andreas fault could extend "several hundred feet into the island and thus encompass large portions of the island's interior." In that scenario, the report said, buildings such as those that constitute much of the housing stock in Area 12 could be "severely damaged."


The lease provided to tenants by the John Stewart Co. is straightforward in disclosing the seismic issue. It quotes from a geotechnical report prepared for the city in 1995 that concluded that the island's soil is of "poor quality and [is] subject to liquefaction and soil displacement (spreading)" similar to that of the Marina District. "That same report established that the areas located within 500 feet of the perimeter island seawall (dike) will be subject to the greatest soil displacement and spreading, and would consequently be subject to the most serious damage in the event of major earthquake," the lease states.


City officials, meanwhile, have long insisted that the island's current residents do not face unacceptable seismic risks. "All of us in San Francisco live with the risk of earthquakes," says Michael Cohen, who heads the mayor's Office of Base Reuse and Development. Cohen says that consulting engineers took seismic issues into account before certifying that the former base housing meets federal standards for "life safety" before the units were opened as rentals in 1999.


The firm responsible for the certification was Toft, de Nevers & Lee, engineers for the John Stewart Co. But a 1999 letter from C. Vincent de Nevers, one of the firm's partners, didn't sound like a ringing endorsement. "It continues to be my opinion that a significant seismic event could produce extensive structural and therefore economic damage [in the housing area] without resulting in material life safety impairment," de Nevers wrote. "Only in the unlikely event of a very major ground shift ... do I foresee the possibility of injury to occupants."


His assertion that the possibility of such a ground shift was "so remote that it constitutes an acceptable risk" even prompted a friendly corrective from Michael Cohen, in his then-capacity as a deputy city attorney. "I want to clarify that at no point in time has the city and county of San Francisco or the Treasure Island Development Authority (or anyone else that I am aware of) agreed that the possibility of a major seismic movement ... is so remote that it constitutes an acceptable risk," Cohen wrote. "To the contrary," he added, the city was relying on de Nevers' "written certifications" that the housing units met Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines for "life safety."


No major seismic reinforcement around the perimeter dike has occurred in the 16 years since the Navy's consultants first raised the issue after the Loma Prieta quake. And none is anticipated until after construction of the hoped-for Treasure Island redevelopment project gets started, which, under the most optimistic scenario, may be at least three years away.


Meanwhile, Treasure Island watchdog Eugene Brodsky insists that based on seismic issues alone, no one should currently occupy the island rental housing.


Brodsky is critical of preliminary financial plans that suggest annual income from the rentals — currently estimated at about $10 million — may be used to offset the cost of the development envisioned by the Anderson/Burkle/Lennar team. Specifics of those plans aren't expected to be known until a so-called "term sheet" is unveiled, perhaps this summer. But the latest iteration of the plan, released earlier this year, envisioning the rental housing to remain for up to a decade after construction starts, would make the Area 12 neighborhood the last remnant of the "old" Treasure Island to be razed.


"To me there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that residents there are at considerable [seismic] risk," says Brodsky. "The question is why should that be?"


His answer: "The revenue from the rentals is a cash cow to help pay for the development. Knowing what we know about the north end of the island, that's something that should be reconsidered."




Meanwhile, such concerns seem distant to many of the island's inhabitants, whether so-called "market-raters" enamored of the cheap rents and island living, or the formerly homeless people served by TIHDI, many of whom are appreciative to have a place to live.


"People living out here have traditionally felt like the city's stepchildren," says Alice Pilram, who with her husband moved to adjacent Yerba Buena Island three years ago after their daughters went off to college. "It isn't that the environmental issues aren't real, but there's enough on people's agendas already so that those things are sort of put on the back burner."


Melanie Williams, the formerly homeless mother and seven-year Area 12 veteran, agrees.


"I know there's environmental stuff to worry about," she says. "But the way I look at it, if it was good enough for the Navy people, it's probably good enough for us."


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