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Treasure Island: A Radioactive Isle

A growing number of former residents have cancer, and sources involved in cleaning up the former military base say the Navy has deceived the people who live there now.



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Why were people allowed to move onto the island in the late 1990s, even when the Navy and San Francisco political leaders knew there might be health risks? At the time, city officials worried that the former Navy housing would decay and lose value, and San Francisco was looking for an additional source of revenue to offset the cost of managing Treasure Island. The city anticipates receiving approximately $4.3 million in fiscal year 2012-13 from market-rate rental housing revenues.

Saul Bloom of Arc Ecology voiced his opposition when the city first opened the island to renters after the Navy closed the base in 1997, and he's alternately been a promoter and a critic of the island's development. Although his environmental advocacy organization was originally supportive of the city's 2006 development plan for the island, Arc Ecology (as part of Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island) recently filed a lawsuit challenging the Navy's environmental impact report; a decision is expected before the end of the year. "It's called sloppiness," he said of the decision to open the island to residential housing. "It's called failure to do your due diligence before you actually go ahead and begin to utilize the site and not paying attention to the reasonable concerns people have. ... [It's about] looking to satisfy one bottom line while ignoring another."

Over the past fifteen years, the island has gradually opened for business to the general public — it has hosted film productions (including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), conferences for prominent companies like Oracle, jewelry exhibitions, weddings, music festivals, as well as little league and rugby teams. Environmentally conscious visitors can even charge their electric vehicles on the island at three charging stations in the Treasure Island Marina parking lot.

Multiple wineries also operate on the island, including The Fat Grape Winery. I met with Patrick Bowen, the owner, in early August as he sprayed down large metallic wine containers with water. For Bowen, and many business owners on the island, radioactive waste is a sensitive issue — it's bad for business. Bowen said he wasn't concerned about toxins on the island because "it all goes through state regulations and federal regulations." He added: "Business is getting better every day, every week, every month. I have lots of returning customers. ... I have something different — wine without sulfides. There are only five or so wineries without sulfides in the state of California." Despite the fact that his winery is two blocks from the island's "high radiation" storage area, Bowen said, "Sulfides are more of a concern to me, because I'm allergic, than any radioactive materials out here."

The most worrisome sites on the island are those where kids with fragile, still developing immune systems may be exposed to toxins. The island's only child development center serves about 45 kids, ages three months to five years, and is directly across the street from a radiologically controlled area called Site 31, which contains low-level radioactive dirt that has yet to be shipped off the island. "When the balls go over the fence, we don't get them back," said center director Kathie Autumn.

The draft minutes of an August 3, 2011 meeting about the cleanup that was closed to the public highlighted concerns raised during the meeting by Gene Forrer, an associate health physicist at the California Department of Public Health's Radiologic Health Branch. According to the draft minutes, Forrer "pointed out that no radiological controls were in place during the field work at Site 31." He also noted that a pile of dirt excavated from Site 31 was "significantly contaminated" and asked about "the problem of wind and the site location between the child development center and the Boys & Girls Club."

While kids at the child development center and the Boys & Girls Club are closely supervised, adolescents and teenagers often wander the island alone. In May 2006, SF Weekly published "Toxic Acres," which included a photo of a child who looked to be about ten years old crawling out of a contaminated, off-limits area on Treasure Island. Examples like this belie the Navy's insistence that it has implemented institutional controls to keep people safe, including cordoning off contaminated areas, covering radioactive dirt with plastic, and instructing residents not to grow anything in the soil. The reality is that some people — children especially — simply are not going to follow the rules.

The Treasure Island community may look dramatically different in the coming decades if San Francisco political leaders and real estate developers are able to move ahead with their plans to build an eco-friendly mini-city of 20,000 people. The City of San Francisco has agreed to pay up to $105 million for the Treasure Island site and will also contribute more than $800 million in bond funds. Treasure Island Community Development, LLC — which comprises Lennar, Wilson Meany, and Kenwood Investments — will contribute approximately $500 million. Politicians have predicted Treasure Island will become the city's "premiere date night locale" and developers have made ambitious plans for multiple residential towers, a forty-story hotel, parks, boutique shops, and restaurants. At least 25 percent of units will reportedly be set aside for low-income housing.

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