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Kim Kellner knew nothing about the radioactive waste when she lived on Treasure Island as a teenager from 1970 to 1975. Her dad was career Navy, and the family moved to the island from the Naval Air Station on Guam. For her, Treasure Island was a safe, beautiful place where she traveled everywhere by foot — to the island's teen club, bowling alley, cafeteria, and movie theater — always breathing in the fresh ocean air. "It was the best," she remembered. "That's why, when you read a lot of the posts [on Facebook], people have fond memories of the place — not realizing that we were paying a price."
In 2002, Kellner was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors determined through genetic testing that it was not hereditary. She endured chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and her cancer is now in remission. As she began to share her story with others, Kellner noticed a troubling trend: In addition to both of her parents, more than a dozen of her Treasure Island friends and neighbors also had cancer. One of her closest friends, Sam Tyo, died at the age of 45, killed by stomach cancer that spread to his pancreas and liver. Kellner visited him two weeks before his death, and she recalled him wondering aloud why his own brother and so many of his friends had cancer, too.
When Kellner took her husband to Treasure Island in 2009 to show him where she grew up, it had turned into a ghost town. All of her former stomping grounds — the cafeteria, movie theater, and bowling alley — were boarded up with signs warning of asbestos and other cancer-causing toxins. She also remembered that in the early 1970s, there had been construction going on near the former teen club, which was located across from the elementary school. "During the time that we were going to that teen club, they were digging up an area on the northwest end of the island for new housing, and no one ever knew of any hazardous waste there," she said. "So I'm thinking now, 'Geez! We were on that island, and we were probably downwind, because the wind came from west to east. So we may have been breathing all of that stuff.'"
As she pulled up to her former home at 1317C Gateview Drive, she was in for an even bigger shock: The whole unit was fenced off and covered with green tarps. Signs on the fences warned of radioactive materials. "It just made me sick," she said. "And then to see that there were people living on the island!"
Kellner and a dozen other former residents interviewed for this story are disheartened that no one has acknowledged what they believe is the real cause of their suffering. E.J. Mocklin lost eleven childhood friends to cancer, including his best friend, Tina Miltenberger, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 26 and died in 1996 at the age of 39. Miltenberger's sister is a survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "For me, this is Tina's story," said Mocklin, who gave the eulogy at Miltenberger's funeral and has himself survived leukemia and multiple sclerosis. "I won't be at peace until they say, 'Yes, the toxic waste has had an impact on human health, and it's affected thousands of people.'"
The approximately 2,000 people living on Treasure Island today are a mix of low- to middle-income college students, residents, and professionals who chose to reside on the island, despite many of them knowing that there might be health risks. One resident, Alex Kostushkin, moved to Treasure Island four years ago from a town near Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. "I saw [radioactive waste] signs near our house [on Treasure Island] but did not pay too much attention to it," he said.
Mark Connors, the editor-in-chief of Treasure Island News, a community newsletter that includes summaries of Navy meetings about the contamination cleanup, said he came to Treasure Island for the cheap rent in a "nice, quiet place" with "lots of fresh air." He lives in what he describes as a "huge" three-bedroom that rents for less than $2,000 a month, with all utilities included. His said his main concern is the community's "episodic crime waves."
Connors and others like him who rent market-rate homes compose about 71 percent of the island's residents; however, many within that group are financially insecure. Market-rate renters include people in subsidized Section 8 housing, people living on Social Security or unemployment, and cash-strapped college students who share multi-room apartments — paying as little as $300 or $400 per person per month, with all utilities included. "It's almost like economic slavery in a way," said Kathryn Lundgren, a market-rate resident. "They've entrapped us by making it so appealing, and now my family is in an economic condition we never expected and we can't afford to move."
The other 29 percent of the residents come to the island through the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative's member organizations. For many of these individuals, it was Treasure Island, the ghetto, or the streets. Former ex-convicts, recovering drug addicts, HIV-positive individuals, and the formerly homeless find on Treasure Island the support they desperately need for themselves and their families. In many cases, residents pay rent that's 30 percent of their income; some have no income and consequently pay no rent. A federally funded program on the island called Job Corps provides free room and board to students who want to obtain their GED or high school diploma, learn a trade skill, and receive help in finding a job and living independently. I talked with ten Jobs Corps students who were hanging out in the school courtyard during the first week in August; only three knew about radioactive waste on the island.