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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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Unless the Navy can definitively explain why such large quantities of the disks have been discarded on the island and why they are allegedly confined only to certain areas, some health officials may push the Navy to "fully classify" Treasure Island. This is a technical term for testing and classifying every parcel of land for radioactive contamination, as opposed to testing only areas thought to be contaminated.

Comprehensive testing not only would be an exorbitantly expensive task, but also would invariably be plagued by the problem of high groundwater. Surface scans conducted by Shaw rarely identify the radioactive disks unless they are within six inches to a foot from the surface. "You can put very radioactive material in a foot of water and have difficulty detecting it," an unnamed source close to the cleanup told CalWatchdog's Anthony Pignataro in 2010. "There's just no way to know if the whole island is toxic."

During a tense and emotional August 21 Restoration Advisory Board meeting on the island, the Navy attempted to calm residents who were alarmed by what The Bay Citizen had published. Officials from the California Department of Public Health, which has been the most critical of the cleanup, were not present at the meeting. David Clark, the Navy's lead remedial project manager, promised to give residents "the information you need to make an informed decision." Officials from the Navy and Shaw repeatedly said, "There is no evidence to support that there are any human health risks on Treasure Island."

But their statements omitted crucial information.

During the meeting, I asked Clark how far the material inside the three shipments of highly dangerous radioactive material was from where people live, work, and play. Clark replied, to audible sounds of exasperation from the audience: "For those specific comments, we will get back to you. We want to get you the correct information, so we will take that as an action item and get specific answers to that."

Clark further assured residents: "There is no human health risk to residents or anyone at the Boys & Girls Club. ... All of [the sites] are monitored constantly for any exposure issues and the air is monitored as well. ... The state has reviewed that data — they are aware of it — and they have not seen any air issues from our radiation sites."

Clark did not mention that, until 2007, when the island cleanup came under state regulation, Shaw may have taken air samples at Site 31 for lead and PCB, but not for radioactive material. It's therefore impossible to know if that air was safe for the children to breathe. Until pressed, he did not mention that this monitoring is conducted by Shaw, the same company that received notices of violation for unsafe conduct in other parts of its operation.

In response to residents' concerns about safe groundwater, Ryan Miya from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said: "There is monitoring of the groundwater quality, and chemical analysis, as well as radiological analysis. Especially with the radiological analysis, there hasn't been any detection of radionuclides in the groundwater." Miya did not reveal that groundwater sampling for radionuclides has been conducted only since 2008 and only in Site 12.

Christine Donahue, Shaw's radiation safety officer, further comforted community members by saying that surface scans for radiologic materials are being carried out on the island. When pressed, however, she acknowledged the fact that these scans can generally reach only six inches to one foot due to high groundwater. She also told residents that the dirt at Site 31, across from the child development center, was not dangerous. "I could drape myself in that material," she said. "I could dribble it all over myself and I'd be okay. I promise."

In an email statement, officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has often defended the Navy's cleanup competence, declined to comment on Donahue's "dribble" remark. However, they noted that "the chemicals of concern [at Site 31] are lead, dioxin, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)." These three chemicals can be absorbed through the skin if "dribbled" all over oneself and can cause serious health problems — which is why workers wear Hazmat suits when dealing with them. The low-level radioactive material found at Site 31 cannot be absorbed through the skin but is dangerous if inhaled; the chances of inhalation would certainly increase if this dirt was dribbled all over oneself.

Shortly before the August 21 meeting, at about 6:15 p.m., I snapped photographs of the parking lot outside the Shaw offices at Site 570, where the more dangerous radioactive materials are stored. The signs on the storage boxes in this parking lot indicated that this is a "high radiation area." Under the guidelines of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high radiation areas must be clearly marked and access to these areas must be "maintained under strict control."

Yet the gate to the parking lot was wide open and no workers were around. I watched two children ride by on bikes. During the Restoration Advisory Board meeting, I told Clark about this incident, and he said that kids would be safe outside the closed storage boxes. "Regular scanning shows that there's no contamination," he said. In an email statement in response to my question about this situation, the California Department of Public Health officials (CDPH) seemed to acknowledge that concern was warranted. They wrote: "CDPH has an open investigation of Site 570, which includes security and materials located there."

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