by Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen
State health officials have declared day care and youth centers, ballfields, some residential backyards and other sites on Treasure Island safe from radiation in response to fears about the area’s nuclear past.
The surveys taken from 24 publically accessible locations were not part of the Navy’s scheduled cleanup program, but were prompted by public concern about exposure to radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station.
Interactive map by Shane Shifflett, The Bay Citizen
Health department technicians found negligible levels of radiation posing no health threat at those locations, according to California Department of Public Health reports produced in response to a public records request by The Bay Citizen. But that doesn’t mean the former base is ready for a proposed 20,000-resident community approved this year by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At cordoned off areas around the island, the cleanup of contamination continues in and around areas slated for future construction.
The Navy acknowledged at an Oct. 16 community meeting that extensive work remains, including additional radiation surveys of locations such as the former site of the USS Pandemonium, a mock-up ship used to train sailors to decontaminate ships hit with nuclear fallout. That site is surrounded by former barracks now used as low-income housing.
Additionally, the Navy has yet to respond to recent reports that the military has not fully vetted Treasure Island for possible nuclear waste. On Oct. 4, state health officials told the Navy that it had not adequately explored the possibility that during its years as a military base, Treasure Island might have been dusted with radioactive ash, soaked with radioactive sewage and contaminated with radioactive garbage.
The Navy plans to formally answer the health officials’ critique by mid-December, according to Melanie Ault, Base Realignment and Closure Program coordinator for the Navy.
Of all the public areas surveyed recently, only one showed elevated levels. An infield of the baseball field located at Avenue H and Ninth Street, with the exception of the area around third base, had a radiation level “slightly less than twice background. The soil in the affected area was noticeably darker,” wrote John G. Fassell, chief of radioactive material inspection for the Compliance and Enforcement Section of the state’s health department, in a report dated Oct. 5.
But that darker ground apparently had been added to the field. “The little league groundskeeper indicated he had been bringing in fill material as top dressing for the infield from off site as part of his maintenance of the field,” the report said, concluding it “does not pose a health threat.”
At a recent City Hall hearing, the city’s environmental engineer assigned to monitor cleanup of the former Navy base suggested Treasure Island is getting closer to being ready for redevelopment.
“No health and safety concerns were identified by the California Department of Public Health,” testified Amy Brownell, environmental engineer with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, at an Oct. 15 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee.
At the hearing, where some Treasure Island residents wore T-shirts that read “Hell No We Won’t Glow,” Brownell sought to reassure them that their homes are not radioactive. “Treasure Island is safe for current residents and workers and will remain safe,” she said.
But Kathryn Lundgren, co-founder of the grassroots Treasure Island Health Network, said that the health department surveys did not go far enough. “They’ve never been in my backyard,” said Lundgren, who lives on Bayside Drive adding: “Their scope needs to be larger.” The recent surveys did include some backyards on nearby Gateview Avenue.
The Treasure Island Development Authority and the Navy requested the scans, following concerns heightened by the revelation in August that radioactive contamination at the Treasure Island Naval Station is more widespread than previously disclosed.
Areas tested included The Boys and Girls Club, Kendrex Winery, Treasure Island Childcare Center and the Great Lawn. Most readings came in at “background radiation levels.” Some minimal radiation exists everywhere, but those readings are low enough to not be considered a health risk.
The team looked at one fenced area next to a soccer field where cleanup workers from Shaw Environmental store radioactive waste in a large box inside a second fenced area. The restricted area inside that locked gate showed readings ranging from 20 to 90 microrems per hour – still well below the levels the Environmental Protection Agency recognizes as a health threat.
The area was surveyed after a report of an entrance to the larger fenced area being left open. Shaw workers assured health officials that “the locks on the gate and the large box are barriers that would prevent access and possible exposure to radiation.”
In an Oct. 5 letter to residents of the island, Brownell said that the new health department surveys included seven of nine locations that the Navy recently identified as having “the potential to be ‘radiologically impacted.’ ” She wrote: “As of today, the Navy has not discovered any evidence of radiological contamination in these newly identified areas.”
At the rules committee hearing in San Francisco, Supervisor David Campos called for additional testing. “Why not test the neighborhoods?” he said. “If I lived there, it is something that I would like to see my government do.”
Brownell responded that testing areas not identified as possibly contaminated can stir public concern, causing “more fear and anxiety.”
James Sullivan, the Navy’s environmental coordinator emphasized at a Navy-run community meeting on Oct. 16 that the health department surveys would not be the last: “This doesn’t mean that the Navy and regulatory agencies won’t do formal detailed inspections of the same areas,” he said.
Next month, the Navy plans to release an inventory of the waste that has been taken off the base in the “last couple of years,” Sullivan said.
Since the mid-1990s, Treasure Island has been slated to become the site of a second downtown San Francisco. But those plans have been delayed by a Navy legacy of toxic and nuclear waste and an expensive, time-consuming cleanup. Those efforts were set back even further this summer when the Navy acknowledged it had severely misjudged the amount of radioactive material that might have been handled during Treasure Island’s decades as a Naval base.
In August, the Navy announced plans for a more aggressive nuclear waste cleanup, to be completed some time next year.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.