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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 of the cleanup mistakes at Treasure Island can be traced to the work of Shaw Environmental, which is contracted by the Navy to conduct the cleanup and has financial incentives not to find radiologic material. Uncovering radiologic material means that the project slows down dramatically. In a 2007 Navy newsletter to residents of Treasure Island, Shaw Project Manager Pete Bourgeois stated that the most rewarding and challenging part of his job was "completing a task or project on time, under budget, and safely providing the client a service that helps them with their final goal." The client he presumably referred to was the Navy, not the people of Treasure Island.

Internal emails and memos suggest that Shaw was initially sloppy in handling radioactive material, although the company has since amended many of its protocols. Shaw received multiple notices of violation from the state for its failures to properly measure and document radiation levels and for its unsafe movement of radioactive soil around the island in a manner that may have contaminated previously uncontaminated sites. A June 23, 2011 letter from Kent Prendergast of the California Department of Public Health's Radiologic Health Branch to Shaw's leadership stated:

"CDPH found numerous instances where Shaw failed to conduct and/or document radiation/contamination surveys. ... It is apparent from these and previous violations that there is a lack of radiological oversight, practical hands-on experience with environmental radiological projects and methods, basic radiation technology experience, and/or a failure to include the Radiation Safety Officer in production management decisions that affect the radiological protection program at the Treasure Island project."

The letter further noted that Shaw's failure to properly calibrate and conduct performance tests on survey meters was "so serious that you must correct it immediately." The state has recently taken the rare step of assigning state inspectors to the Treasure Island site — a likely sign that it lacks confidence in the cleanup operations.

One of my sources shared a photograph from about five years ago showing a worker from Shaw using a backhoe loader to dump dirt that contained radium-226 into an open-bed truck. Some of the radioactive dirt got caught in the wind and spilled onto the road. The worker in the photo was not wearing protective equipment. The scene depicted in this photo is corroborated by internal Department of Public Health emails.

The concerns also extend to Shaw's technical procedures. According to emails and memos, Shaw used the island's Ninth Street Playground to establish a base-level reading for naturally occurring "background radiation." Yet laboratory analysis of the playground's soil indicated slightly elevated levels of thorium and radium-226. While the levels were not considered dangerous, the analysis brought into question Shaw's technical competence in choosing an elevated area as its basis for "background radiation." At an August 21 community meeting, Ryan Miya, an official from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said that Shaw had used detection technology that was not sensitive enough, and consequently did not spot the initial error. Another site on Treasure Island is now being used for establishing background radiation.

Radiologic contamination has now been found on Treasure Island throughout a vast 93-acre area called Site 12. This site represents about 20 percent of the land where developers hope to build their eco-city. On the first days of digging at Site 12 in 2006, those dangerous octagonal metal disks were uncovered.

At a recent Treasure Island Restoration Advisory Board meeting, Shaw's Radiation Safety Monitor, Christine Donahue, told residents that the disks, which are also called foils or commodities, are actually not so dangerous. "High-level is a relative term," she said. "You go to a hospital and you get an X-ray or a CAT scan — that can be considered high-level. It's far more damaging than picking up one of these radium foils. Even a visit to the dentist, if you get a panoramic, it's much more than this foil."

A source involved in the cleanup expressed shock at Donahue's comment. "If a person were to hold one of these disks," the source said, "the annual exposure limit for the general public set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would likely be exceeded in less than an hour."

Many island residents mistakenly believe that radioactive contamination mostly comes from relatively harmless glow-in-the-dark buttons distributed during the 1939 and 1940 International Exposition. In fact, the mysterious metal disks represent the primary and generally most dangerous source of radioactive contamination on Treasure Island — and the Navy does not seem to know their original source.

James Sullivan, a civil engineer with no radiologic expertise contracted by the Navy to oversee the cleanup, said in an interview that the disks come from "a couple of sources," but he declined to be specific. Later, in an email statement, Sullivan confirmed that the Navy could only guess about the original source of these disks: "It appears that these disks were placed in a holding device to simulate different levels of radioactivity during training exercises which would be consistent with the Treasure Island training mission."

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