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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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Many have celebrated the plans as a win-win for everyone involved, and labor unions in particular have been among the strongest supporters. Former House Speaker and San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said that development on Treasure Island will create 2,500 long-term jobs and bring $5 billion in public and private investment.

Others have lambasted the development deal for alleged obfuscations, insider deals, and conflict-of-interest issues. Tony Hall, the former executive director of the Treasure Island Development Authority (the lead city agency responsible for overseeing the project), described Treasure Island development as a "den of corruption." In a 2010 San Francisco Public Press Special Report on Treasure Island, journalist Jeremy Adam Smith wrote, "The more one learns about the stake lobbyists and developers have in Treasure Island, the more one wonders if the Ecotopian vision isn't just a way to sell development to a skeptical public."

Treasure Island Community Development, LLC was one of only two bidders for the project. Other potential developers reportedly opted not to bid in part due to concerns about the risk of the island liquefying in an earthquake. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Treasure Island sank several feet. Environmentalists also have voiced concern about a disaster if a massive flood hits the island — an earthquake off Alaska could trigger one — or if sea levels rise more than developers have anticipated.

Tsunamis and sea-level rise also complicate the radioactive contamination cleanup because they increase the potential for contamination to spread to other parts of the island — and the Bay Area. This could be worsened by the fact that the groundwater is extremely high on Treasure Island, making radioactive material more than a foot underground almost impossible to detect with surface scans. During a natural disaster, hidden radioactive material could come to the surface and harm residents trapped on the island.

Lennar, one of the three companies leading the Treasure Island project, specializes in transforming former military bases — many of which are similarly contaminated — into residential housing. It also helped fuel the recent mortgage crisis through its involvement in subprime loan properties and speculative over-building. And as it has done on Treasure Island, Lennar once made commitments to build affordable housing in San Francisco's Hunters Point and Orange County. In Orange County, Lennar required low-income buyers to make a 50 percent down payment, although it originally advertised the project with the words "3 percent down payment required." In Hunters Point, Lennar built less low-income housing than it had advertised when San Francisco voted in favor of its development plan. After struggling to stay afloat through the mortgage crisis, Lennar seems to have bounced back, but its stability is increasingly dependent on risky mega-projects like Treasure Island — which may explain why the company is pushing so hard to get city officials to expedite the Treasure Island development despite the health and environmental issues.

Elected officials often have political and financial incentives that can override concerns about public health, and Treasure Island is no exception. "When we go in to try to stop these toxic and radioactive projects, it's really hard to get the [San Francisco] city officials to do the right thing," said Eric Brooks, the campaign coordinator for Our City, a movement working on consumer, social justice, and environmental issues. "They're under pressure from companies like Lennar and also from the building trade unions, whose members are desperate for work. I don't fault them, but it's kind of like in the old days when loggers were pitted against environmentalists. We should all be working together on this. The builders will be more exposed to toxins than anyone else."

The City of San Francisco, meanwhile, has pledged to exercise the highest level of caution to protect public health. On June 17, 2003, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the "precautionary principle" as city and county policy. Part of the statement read: "Where threats of serious or irreversible damage to people or nature exist, lack of full scientific certainty about cause and effect shall not be viewed as sufficient reason for the City to postpone measures to prevent the degradation of the environment or protect the health of its citizens."

The precautionary principle was not followed on Treasure Island. Last month, the Express obtained internal emails and memo exchanges between the Navy, the California Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, in which officials from the Department of Public Health voiced concern at the "heavily flawed" 2006 Historical Radiological Assessment, which claimed that radiological contamination of the island was minimal and confined to a handful of hotspots. The Bay Citizen obtained most of the same documents for its August 17 and 28 reports.

The correspondences were provided to the Express by Tony Gantner, a local environmental lawyer who has followed this issue for the past two years and obtained the documents through a California Public Records Act request. Gantner has written letters to the San Francisco Mayor's Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to citizen leaders of Treasure Island, drawing attention to the potential danger. One of his letters, hand-delivered to the office of Mayor Ed Lee on November 9, 2011, followed the city's April certification of an Environmental Impact Report that claimed that "remaining low-level radiological material contamination at the Naval base is isolated to small portions of Site 12 and Building 233." Gantner wrote in his letter: "That was a radiologic lie then. ... It has proven even more so today."

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