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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On August 17, 2010, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed an "endorsement agreement" to transfer the island from the Department of Defense to the City of San Francisco. At the ceremony, Newsom called the Treasure Island plans "arguably the most environmentally friendly infill development in American history." As it turns out, this was not actually an official transfer: The real transfer depends on a stamp of approval from state health officials so the city cannot be held liable for public health problems.

California health officials will submit their comments on the Navy's latest draft report by September 5. They may call for the full classification of every inch of the island, which would take many years and cost millions more than initially anticipated. Some believe that all current residents should be moved off the island until the cleanup is completed, while others insist that residents can be kept safe through additional precautions.

But the latter group subscribes to a different definition of "safe" than the general public may realize — and different from what many scientists have concluded. A 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that no level of exposure to radioactive materials is ever completely harmless. "The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial," the report stated. "The health risks — particularly the development of solid cancers in organs — rise proportionally with exposure."

On Treasure Island, much remains to be seen. Will the development plans for the "premiere date-night locale" be stalled indefinitely? Will current residents of the island — the ones who may have inhaled unsafe air for years — be able to afford the rent on the island if and when it's cleaned up? Will politicians who pushed aggressively for Treasure Island development be challenged on what they did and did not know about the public health risk? Will other former military bases across the country come under closer scrutiny? (At Treasure Island, the Navy reports to the State of California, not the federal government; the emails obtained by Gantner show that the Navy's failures might never have surfaced without the interventions of these state health officials.) Will a cancer cluster analysis of former Treasure Island residents be conducted? Will a class-action lawsuit be pursued? Will officials from the Navy and Shaw ever be held accountable?

Many Treasure Island residents, meanwhile, are not staying silent. The most powerful part of the August 21 Restoration Advisory Board meeting was not the misleading statements by Navy and Shaw officials, but rather the resolve of residents to parse out the technical terminology, share their stories, and demand answers. "I'm trying to play it cool, but I'm kind of getting edgy," said Melanie Jones, a community leader who used to be homeless and has lived on the island with her kids since 1999. She also has long been an outspoken proponent of island development. "I came here to find out: Am I in danger? I need to know. I don't want to go around sugar-coating."

Multiple audience members said that they sensed a repeat of what's happened at Bayview-Hunters Point, a radiologically contaminated former Navy shipyard in which Lennar is deeply invested. A toxic underground fire broke out a few years ago in one of the most hazardous areas of concern at this site; it burned for weeks. "I used to work for the child welfare department up on 3801 Third Street in the Bayview, and I had a lot of families come through there sick from being up by the shipyard," one female audience member said. "And what I'm hearing tonight is basically the same BS that they got when they had to deal with it over there."

Two representatives from the Boys & Girls Club asked if their kids might be inhaling airborne radioactive dust. One Treasure Island resident noted that the EPA had similarly asserted that the air around the World Trade Center after 9/11 was safe — a claim that later proved to be false. Other residents shared stories about residents with health problems, including rashes, asthma, lupus, and cancer. Two audience members asked if a health survey had been conducted on current and past residents. It has not.

Kathryn Lundgren, the woman who told me that living on Treasure Island is "almost like economic slavery," left the August 21 meeting early, in tears. Lundgren's 12-year-old daughter, who I'll call Mandy (she asked that her real name not be used), has lupus, constant rashes, and at least four ovarian cysts that cause her enormous pain; Mandy was to have exploratory surgery the next day to determine possible causes. An audience member read Lundgren's question from a piece of paper; she wanted to know the results of swab tests for toxins that had been conducted in her home five years ago.

The week following the meeting, I met with Kathryn Lundgren at her American flag-draped apartment at 1201 Bayside Drive. The Lundgren's three-bedroom home — which houses Kathryn, her husband Eric, Mandy, and two older siblings — sits less than one block from a former Bayside Drive dig site, one of two places in Site 12 where many of those dangerous radioactive disks were found.

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