By Matt Smith and Katharine Mieszkowski, The Center for Investigative Reporting
Halfway across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, an abrupt exit leads to Treasure Island, a seven-sided plain with spectacular views that inspire grandiose dreams. The Army Corps of Engineers created the island for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, encircling 400 acres of bay shoals with rock walls, draining them, filling the void with sand and soil, and naming it after the famous adventure novel. Today, the city of San Francisco has set its sights on erecting a second downtown there.
But Treasure Island’s fate in the intervening decades – and a long-secret legacy of radioactive waste left behind – has complicated those plans.
After the exposition, the island was set to become a civilian airport – until the United States entered World War II. The Navy seized the land for the Treasure Island Naval Station and demolished the expo’s Art Moderne structures, leaving just the terminal and two hangars. In the spaces around them rose a little village of beige one- and two-story sheds.
For years, the base served its purpose until, in 1993, it landed on a decommission list. The military decamped, dismantling and cleanup began, and a few years later some former Navy housing was turned into city-subsidized rentals. By 2007, the Navy was well into the process of preparing the land for full transfer to civilian control.
That year, cleanup operations shifted from removing Navy industrial toxics and sludge to identifying any lingering radioactive waste. New World Environmental, a contractor working for the Navy, assigned specialist Robert McLean to conduct a preliminary radiation survey.
That was how McLean found himself cruising through neighborhoods built near former U.S. Navy training academies, with a Ludlum radiation meter poked out of his truck window. He did not expect to find much; just the year before, a Navy-commissioned historical report had suggested there was little likelihood that significant radioactive waste would be found on the island. And by then hundreds of San Franciscans were living in modest townhouses on Treasure Island and neighboring Yerba Buena Island – with the Navy’s assurances that doing so was perfectly safe.
Then, the sensor needle hopped.
“We picked up readings from inside the truck, without even getting out of the vehicle,” said McLean, speaking publicly about his discovery for the first time. That first detection was not the last.
Reporters Matt Smith and Katharine Mieszkowski joined KQED’s “Forum” this morning to discuss their yearlong investigation, which questions whether Treasure Island is safe for current residents and explores the implications for San Francisco’s plans to build thousands of new units there.