It seemed like the ideal redevelopment play. The Treasure Island Naval Station, erected on a picturesque strip of land in the middle of San Francisco Bay in 1942, was closed by the US Navy in 1997. The city of San Francisco eyed the property as the centrepiece of a plan for easing the technology hub’s housing crisis.
It looked like a win for all, except for one neglected detail: the toxic legacy the Navy left behind.
Twenty-two years later, hundreds of families have rented old military homes in California – and contaminants are still turning up. To date, the Navy’s $285.1 million Treasure Island cleanup has unearthed concentrations of lead, dioxins, petroleum and more than 1,000 radioactive items. Among other activities, the Navy had used the island to repair ships with deck markers painted with radium.
The upshot, public health specialists say, is that the Navy unnecessarily exposed families to radioactive and toxic materials for decades. Since the military pulled out, the island has become home to some 1,800 people, many living in subsidized housing.
“They never should have allowed anyone to live there,” said health physicist Gaetano Taibi, a radiation safety officer on Treasure Island before joining California’s Department of Public Health.
Across the country, the US military has shuttered hundreds of bases under a plan to consolidate operations and save money. Often, a legacy of environmental harm festers long after the armed forces depart: Nationwide, more than 1 of every 10 of the country’s top-priority toxic-cleanup sites belong to the Department of Defence. The Treasure Island cleanup, conducted under yet another federal toxic remediation program, shows the problems that can resurface.
What went wrong in San Francisco Bay? A Reuters examination – built from nonpublic meeting recordings, interviews with former regulators, and thousands of pages of public documents including engineering reports and state correspondence – shows that, year after year, the Navy understated the extent of contamination. The Navy kept limiting its scope of remediation, only to expand it again and again as regulators and residents raised alarms.
“I don’t think you have a clue what is buried under the ground,” a state health physicist told the Navy in 2010.
The Navy insists there was never unacceptable risk to residents’ health, citing the depth and concentration of buried contaminants. It has been removing pollutants “out of an abundance of caution,” said Reginald Paulding, Navy Base Realignment and Closure environmental coordinator.
The effects of this exposure aren’t known. Scores of people who lived on the island have banded together on Facebook complaining of mysterious maladies. Public records obtained by Reuters show residents for years have complained to state authorities of asthma, rashes, lumps, children’s hair loss and cancers. But there have been no epidemiological studies that demonstrate a link between these complaints and the pollutants on Treasure Island.
The contamination has had clear social and economic consequences, though: It has delayed a city blueprint to provide quality housing. On Treasure Island, San Francisco plans up to 8,000 new residences, hotels, shops and offices. Transfer of the property to San Francisco, nearly 20 years behind schedule, won't finish until the end of 2021.
The city’s Treasure Island Development Authority also cites litigation for delaying construction, and notes San Francisco didn’t adopt a development plan until 2011. Housing construction won’t break ground for another year.
“It’s hard to trust the Navy at this point,” said San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who was part of an unsuccessful 2011 lawsuit that tried to halt development, citing concerns over the Navy’s environmental evaluation.
From 'Magic Isle' to Toxic Waste
At birth, Treasure Island was a marvel of ingenuity. The 400-acre island, constructed by the US government in the 1930s from millions of tons of sand, opened just in time for a World’s Fair. Its name: “Magic Isle.”
After the expo closed, the Navy took control of the island just as the country entered World War II. Naval Station Treasure Island supported air operations, managed a major communication centre and processed over 12,000 men daily for Pacific assignments.
After the war, the Navy established a training centre for radiological decontamination on site, where the mock ship USS Pandemonium helped Navy students prepare for radiological warfare. The land-based vessel contained sealed pouches of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope. Students practiced decontamination by scrubbing the ship clean.
Over the next 30 years, the Navy dumped radioactive material and other contaminants in large rubbish pits. Starting in the 1960s, Navy families lived in housing on base.
On the corner of Avenue E and 11th Street, the Navy discarded used equipment and vessels in the “South Storage Yard.” That dumping ground later became an elementary schoolyard. On the corner of Avenue D and 11th Street, where the island’s day-care centre is now located, the Navy buried trash and “burned debris,” a Navy survey found. Elsewhere, the Navy repaired ships containing glow-in-the-dark gauges covered with radioluminescent paint. The gauges were tossed in pits.
Reuters spoke with over a dozen former military families, none of whom were aware at the time they were living atop hazardous disposal pits.
“It was really kind of a neat place for a kid,” said Bo Ross, now 46, whose father was stationed on the island in the mid-1980s. Ross recalls digging in his backyard at 1249 Exposition Drive, finding pieces of rusted, flaky metal. “We could dig so far down.”
When the military shuttered the base in the 1990s, San Francisco was eager to develop. Until redevelopment started, city residents could rent the old military homes. Under a redevelopment law, one-third of homes would be offered to San Francisco’s homeless.
In a field sampling report, Navy officials described the decades-old waste as innocuous “rubbish, bottles, wire, rope, paper, steel drums, etc.” and promised to remediate. A city advisory panel concluded, “There are no serious toxic remediation issues.”
Others were more concerned. In 1993, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board wrote the Navy about possible 1950s-era “disposal of radium dials,” public records show. The board wanted assurances the radiation had been investigated. The Navy told Reuters it was unable to locate a specific response to the water board.
In the late 1990s, just as city residents began moving in, the Navy started testing the soil. Right away, results showed elevated levels of lead, dioxins, DDT – an insecticide that disrupts the human endocrine system – and other contaminants beneath the schoolyard, day-care centre and yards of some homes.
The Navy said its landlord disclosed the contamination and maintained there was no health threat. Still, residents were advised not to garden or otherwise disturb the soil.
In 2000, the Navy sent California regulators a soil analysis that showed “chemicals of concern” in some backyards. The state warned residents to avoid tracking dirt inside. “If you have children or pets we strongly advise you not to allow them to enter the backyard,” the state wrote.
Beneath the elementary schoolyard, which operated until 2005, the Navy found high levels of lead, dioxins, motor oil pollutants and benzo(a)anthracene, a carcinogenic chemical.
In one sample, the lead concentration was measured at levels 22 times above field screening guidelines. Another sample showed concentrations of DDT 31 times above the US Environmental Protection Agency’s limit.
A series of investigations of the soil beneath the day-care centre – used by military families from 1985-1997 – measured levels of lead, DDT, arsenic, vanadium and dioxins above EPA limits. The Navy capped the ground with asphalt and re-opened the center in March 2003, writing, “Dioxins in the soil do not present an unacceptable health risk.”
A Navy survey in August 2003 found chemical and heavy metal contamination throughout the neighborhood. Workers detected elevated radioactivity near Bo Ross’s old home on Expedition Drive and a cluster near apartments at 1413 Flounder Court.
Shelby Hall, who lived at 1413 Flounder, remembered construction crews in hazmat suits. The Navy never mentioned radiation, she said, but “they didn’t want you to be in the grass.”
In 2006, the Navy published a lengthy report that would shape the cleanup of Treasure Island. The Navy identified a handful of places to check for radiation, including the yards of homes thought to be above old rubbish pits. Checking elsewhere “would be purely speculative,” the Navy told state regulators.
The 2006 report – based on information collected prior to 30 June, 2003 – did not disclose the radiation found in August 2003 near homes on Expedition and Flounder. Nor was there mention of a historical engineering report warning of “radioactive and poisonous wastes” near housing.
“At that time, there was no information that the debris in the presented a radiological risk,” the Navy’s Pauling said.
Children played in the dirt while testing continued, and residents kept moving in.
Kathryn Towne moved to Treasure Island in 2005 with her husband and three kids. The island offered an uninterrupted view of San Francisco’s skyline and endless adventure. Sometimes her kids came home with small items they’d found in the dirt: beads, metal buttons, rusted disks. The girls, 5 and 7, stored their findings in a small jewelry box.
“They called them their treasures,” said Towne. “You know, treasures from Treasure Island.”
In January 2014, the Navy unearthed a round piece of metal with low-level radioactivity next to their home. Towne recalls her daughters suffering rashes, asthma, thyroid issues. At 10, one daughter was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. There is no telling whether these conditions were related to the nearby pollutants.
Towne, herself a Navy daughter, said she trusted the military. “My kids played all over every inch of that island,” she said. “Had I been informed, I could have made a decision to not move there.”
Violet Andry, then a 22-year-old art student, moved into an apartment at 1325 Westside Drive in 2006. A few months later, she found a notice on the front door saying workers would be digging nearby and would place tarps over windows and doors. Andry could exit her lease or stay and pay reduced rent. She stayed.
Robert McLean, a radiation technician who worked for Naval contractor New World Environmental, said he uncovered radiological debris during his first day onsite in 2007. “I found the first piece at the playground,” he said.
Workers piled the radioactive debris in bins next to the administrative building. Later, when the pieces were inventoried, one scrap of foil measured so radioactive that standing a foot away would be the equivalent of receiving one chest x-ray every 10 minutes.
Some radiation health experts say such levels are unlikely to cause lasting health impacts so long as residents aren’t in direct contact with the materials. “Being just a little bit away from these objects, the exposure rate is quite low,” said John Gough, Swedish Health Services’ radiation safety director.
Yet some working on the site said the Navy was slow to inform the community of its discoveries. “They would tell them everything was going fine and everything was getting cleaned up,” said McLean, who attended the island’s community meetings. “They weren’t telling the truth.”
In April 2008, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission flagged serious radiological concerns, telling California’s health department a Navy contractor “recovered 40 to 50 buried radioactive sources.” One of those sources emitted radiation levels that “would represent a public health issue if not handled appropriately.”
The report marked the beginning of a years-long struggle by the state to get the Navy to share its cleanup details. By 2010, the state’s frustration boiled over, according to communications and recorded calls reviewed by Reuters.
That December, state health physicist Victor Anderson berated the Navy, which had given the state a 13-page list of radioactive items found – gauges, buttons, and bits of metal – but did not provide the levels.
“We see a lack of technical expertise that frankly is appalling,” Anderson said, according to a meeting recording. “How do you know the extent of this problem?”
Laurie Lowman, an engineering program manager for the Navy’s radiological agency, replied: “Have we determined the extent of this? No.” She said her agency was seeking more information. Lowman did not reply to interview requests.
Problems were popping up across Treasure Island. In February 2011, the Navy found radioactive items beneath the schoolyard, an area it had vowed had no contaminants.
The state soon conducted its own scan and discovered more radiological contamination, including some near the old apartment of former art student Violet Andry on Westside Drive. “It’s terrible that people are living there and walking their dogs while this is happening,” she said.
For California’s public health department, this was the last straw. Days later, the department warned against the Navy’s first transfer of land to San Francisco, citing “high levels of radioactive contamination.”
Later in 2011, the state health department slapped the Navy’s lead contractor, Shaw Environmental, with 16 violations, including failing to survey excavated soil for radiation. “I’m just waiting for some little kid to find it in his backyard and walk around in his pocket and then show mom this cool thing he found,” state health physicist Gene Forrer told the Navy.
The contractor told the public not to worry. In August 2012, a Shaw radiation safety officer told residents, “I could drape myself in that amount of material ... dribble it all over myself, and I’d be okay.”
Aptim Holdings, which owns Shaw, did not respond to interview requests. Previously, Shaw said it was following Navy guidance.
Changing Its Tune
In 2013, after the state uncovered a radioactive object near a bus stop with potential to cause burns, hair loss and ulceration, the Navy overhauled its assessment. Now, it classified the entire housing neighbourhood as “radiologically impacted.”
The next year, San Francisco approved transferring parts of the island from Navy control to the city. The housing area is slated to transfer to San Francisco last in 2021, a year after new residential construction groundbreaking, allowing the Navy more time for cleanup.
To date, Navy contractors have uncovered 1,289 low-level radioactive items under the streets and sidewalks, playgrounds and yards. More than 50 objects, if held one foot away for less than a day, would expose residents to more radiation than the annual public limit.