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Radiation history on Treasure Island more widespread than reported

A fenced-off residential area on Treasure Island warns of possible radioactivity left behind by the U.S. Navy.
A fenced-off residential area on Treasure Island warns of possible radioactivity left behind by the U.S. Navy.
Contamination from nuclear training ship, glow-in-the-dark buttons from International Exposition

Radioactive contamination at the Treasure Island Naval Station, where San Francisco plans to build a high-rise community for 20,000 residents, is more widespread than previously disclosed, according to a new U.S. Navy report and other documents obtained by The Bay Citizen.

Although the Navy and one state agency say cleanup has been effective and remaining radiation levels are low, the state Department of Public Health expressed alarm as recently as May, saying earlier studies showing fewer radioactive sites led to a botched cleanup effort and the potential spread of contaminants both on and off the island.

The findings appear likely to complicate the environmental cleanup and new construction on Treasure Island after years of debate – much of it shielded from the public – over the island’s radioactive hazards. Internal emails and documents obtained by The Bay Citizen leading up to the findings reveal numerous new areas of concern squarely in the path of the planned development.

The draft report, dated Aug. 6, marks the first time the Navy has fully acknowledged that the island, created from landfill in 1937, was used as a repair and salvage operation for a Pacific fleet exposed to atomic blasts during the Cold War. The report came in response to state regulators, who pressed for details after cleanup workers found radioactive waste in unexpected locations.

Known potential sources of radiation on the island included a nuclear training ship intentionally doused in radiation and even glow-in-the-dark buttons handed out at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition held on the island.

Any radiation lingering from the discarded buttons was similar to that of a household smoke detector, the Navy told island residents in a 2007 newsletter. And the Navy in a previous 2006 report maintained that the two former locations of the dismantled training ship were free of radiation.New potential Radiation sites on Treasure IslandSix years later, the draft report describes a more significant legacy. Treasure Island was a 1940s ground zero for repairing, scrapping, recycling and incinerating material from ships that might have absorbed radiation from atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. One shop repaired cannon sights containing radioactive glow-in-the-dark material. And, the Navy has acknowledged, the training ship sites might not be radiation-free after all.

Since 1993, the Navy has been preparing the site for handoff to the city, which has agreed to pay $105 million for it. To protect the city from future liability, the deal requires a signoff from state health officials.

Those officials have raised questions about exposure for residents of the island. At an August 2011 meeting, a summary shows, the health department alleged that a Navy contractor might have inadvertently exposed children to radioactive dust at a Boys & Girls Club and a child development center on the island.

The Navy and state Department of Toxic Substances Control, a separate agency also monitoring Navy cleanup activities, said the Boys & Girls Club and child center never were contaminated with radioactive dust. They also say that, in general, radiation levels found on the island are too low to endanger human health – only slightly higher than natural radiation found in ordinary backyards.

Based on the new report, the Navy must test other sites on Treasure Island and begin cleanup operations similar to this one.
Based on the new report, the Navy must test other sites on Treasure Island and begin cleanup operations similar to this one.

However, in a Dec. 17, 2010 email, state public health official Peter Sapunor said Navy contractors had dug up and hauled off 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated dirt, some with radiation levels 400 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s human exposure limits for topsoil. Sapunor said he believed extensive radioactive material remained in the soil surrounding those excavations.

Emily Rapaport, president of Good Neighbors of Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, a neighborhood association, has lived on the island for a decade – one of its 2,800 current residents. She’s long adhered to unusual island requirements from the management company overseeing former Navy housing now rented out as apartments. Among them is growing plants in above-ground pots to avoid soil-borne chemicals, she said.

But Treasure Island’s complete radioactive history, Rapaport said, is something about which neighbors previously only speculated.

“They should have been more open and upfront, because there would have been people who would have chosen not to live here,” said Rapaport, who learned of the new Navy report from a Bay Citizen reporter.

Echoes of Hunters Point

The new report on Treasure Island mirrors complaints a decade ago at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where the military long had claimed it lacked information about the history of the site’s Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. A subsequent cleanup at that site contributed to the delay of a 10,000-unit housing development by a consortium led by Lennar Corp., now scheduled for groundbreaking later this year.

Mayor Ed Lee is aware of the Treasure Island radiation issue, according to the deputy overseeing the development project, by another Lennar consortium. Michael Tymoff said San Francisco has urged the Navy to respond to California health officials’ demands for a thorough radioactive cleanup. But he added that his office doesn’t expect the latest disclosures to delay the summer 2013 groundbreaking for the $1.5 billion housing project.

In an interview, Navy environmental cleanup coordinator James Sullivan accused inexperienced state public health inspectors of making exaggerated allegations inconsistent with the Navy’s ongoing commitment to safety on Treasure Island.

The state’s environmental management team has had a lot of turnover, Sullivan said, “and some of the history gets lost with personnel.”

The new historical report has a silver lining, Sullivan added: It more concretely identifies areas of the island not affected by radiation, allowing some parcels to be transferred to San Francisco more swiftly.

State public health officials declined to comment on whether the Navy’s new report allays their concerns, saying they would respond within 30 days through official comments on the current draft version.

Officials with another state regulatory agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said there is no health risk.

“If it were a public health issue, the (toxics control department) would have been very aggressive in taking steps to address it,” said Denise Tsuji, chief of the unit monitoring the Treasure Island cleanup. “The Navy is removing it, managing it and taking it to an appropriate disposal facility.”

State toxic substances cleanup specialist Ryan Miya said that every time the Navy has detected unexpected radiation, Navy cleanup contractors have reassessed the overall operation, in some cases halting work to test for radiation.

“They’ve stopped work, and modifications to the work practices have been made at that time to help ensure public safety,” Miya said.

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