If you drive east on the Bay Bridge out of San Francisco and look down at Treasure Island, it’s hard to miss what look like enormous piles of dirt. These mounds are actually the remains of old Navy barracks, ground into pieces.
Now, they signify some of the first visible steps in the long-talked-about Treasure Island redevelopment. About a year ago, the city of San Francisco broke ground on the project which includes a ferry terminal, shops, restaurants, and 8,000 homes. It’s a big deal for a housing-strapped city. KALW listener Jan Burnham heard about the development and thought about the Island's past. The former Navy base there had notorious problems with its cleanup of radioactive materials.
“I was wondering what came of the radioactive waste contamination that had to be cleaned up after the Navy left,” Burnham asked KALW’s Hey Area community engagement project.
A beautiful, but troubling spot
Burnham doesn’t even live on Treasure Island, but it still means something to her.
“I’ve always liked walking here. I think it’s such a great view of the water and the city, and it’s a beautiful place to bring people when they come to visit,” she says.
I meet her near one of her favorite spots on Treasure Island, on the west side with the view of the city. Palm trees line the paved walking path that circles the perimeter of the island. Burnham used to walk here regularly until a few years ago when she read a troubling article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The Navy had used radioactive materials and they hadn’t cleaned it up properly. They were warning people, residents here, that they had to not play in the dirt and not plant things and I just thought that was horrible.”
Living on Treasure Island
More than 2,000 people live on Treasure island in former military housing. San Francisco started leasing land from the Navy back in the late 90s. It’s one of the most diverse zip codes in the Bay Area. I take Jan Burnham to meet Treasure Island resident Ben Reyes. He’s rented here for two years.
Reyes is a self-proclaimed science nerd. He carries a vial of radium on his key chain and tests his tap water with a wand before he drinks it. He’s from England, and when he got a job with a tech company in San Francisco, Treasure Island caught his eye because of the cheap rent. Then, he Googled it.
“The first immediate articles would be ‘radiation discovered on Treasure Island,’ ‘Residents are suffering health effects,’” he describes.
When he first moved in and started walking around the island, he freaked out a little.
“You see very clear radioactive signs. It almost looks like a post apocalyptic scene with cordoned off houses, abandoned houses, military barracks, and massive ‘Keep Out’ signs. It both intrigued me and did seem a little bit scary,” Reyes says.
So he started carrying a Geiger counter, a small device the size of a game-boy that measures radiation exposure. Reyes shows it to Burnham and takes a reading near her feet: 0.07 microsieverts.
That’s about the amount you get when you sleep next to someone for the night, just from the natural radiation in our bodies. You get little more from an X-ray for a broken arm. You get 40 microsieverts sitting on a plane from New York to LA. Reyes found this out the hard way, when he brought his Geiger counter on a plane, by mistake.
“I didn't realize it was going off...just like a loud ticking noise. I’m surprised no one realized. I was just like, ‘Oh God, I gotta take the batteries out.’”
We walk to an area behind Reyes’ house, blocked off with radiation signs.
“So it’s picking up a little higher than it was over there: 0.2 microsieverts, so still pretty low. We are now in between eating a banana and living 50 miles from a coal power plant for a year,” he says.
The Geiger counter reading may be a little higher here because we’re standing where the Navy is searching for radiation right now - a place where the Navy buried radioactive garbage deep beneath the soil.
“I’m definitely next door neighbors to a bunch of radioactive materials. My friends joke at me that maybe one day you might turn into Spider Man.”
The Navy’s complicated history
Reyes’ Geiger counter is quiet now, partly because the device doesn’t read what’s below the soil. That’s the area of biggest concern because of the Navy’s complicated history on Treasure Island.
In the late 1930s, the U.S. government built the island for the World's Fair. The Navy took over in 1942, using Treasure Island for training.
In 1946 the Navy tested the atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Radioactive fallout coated nearby Navy ships, and sailors didn’t know how to properly clean it off. So the Navy started training sailors in detection and removal across the Pacific on Treasure Island.
Keith Forman, the Navy’s environmental cleanup coordinator for Treasure Island, drives me around and points out these pieces of the Navy’s history.
We visit big, Art Deco style buildings and boarded up bungalows, radiation detection classrooms that housed sources of radium and cesium.
Cleaning up and catching up
Up until the 1960s, the Navy disposed of their radioactive equipment -- and other toxic chemicals -- in a way that was okay at the time: buried them deep underground in big industrial garbage pits officially known as solid waste disposal areas. Forman takes me to one that was just cleaned up and I ask if any objects were found in the area.
“Yes, there were some low-level rad objects that were found,” he says.
That’s Navy speak for radioactive things - tiny buttons painted with radium paint, small pieces of radioactive equipment. Forman emphasizes the words "low-level." He wants to be clear - these aren’t weapons-grade materials, and they’re small. Forman pinches his fingers together as if he’s holding a dime.
“They're not willy nilly everywhere,” he says. “I believe we're at 1,220 low-level rad objects that we found on the Island. All but 17 of them have been in the solid waste disposal areas that you and I toured,” Forman says.
Twelve hundred is way more than earlier studies suggested. The Navy admits now those studies weren’t comprehensive enough. About five years ago, when they started cleaning up toxic chemicals like petroleum and lead, they found more objects. The California Department of Public Health got involved and found even more radioactive materials. Now the Navy’s playing catch-up.
“Well, it's a step by step process of discovery. So you know a lot more now than you did then. Can I admit that we made mistakes? Well of course mistakes are made in the past. There's no there's no perfect process,” Forman says.
A few objects were discovered under the soil near playgrounds and under the foundation of peoples’ homes. In a 2013 report, the California Department of Public Health said they found a radioactive fragment underneath a grassy area, that if held for an hour, could cause radiation burns, hair loss, and ulceration.
“It would be a concern if it were ever in contact with somebody. Again, you're talking about things that were found at depth,” Forman says.
KALW has submitted Freedom of Information requests to get the most up-to-date info. In the meantime, Forman says confidently: the Navy shouldn’t find any more radioactive objects outside of the three garbage pits, and as long as Treasure Island residents obey their lease rules and don’t dig in their backyards, Forman says, they should be fine.
“It’s not presenting any unacceptable risks to people who work here, people who live here, people who recreate here.”
A radiation cleanup study at our doorstep
I take these assurances to Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at UC Berkeley. When we talk, he’s just returned from Fukushima and is about to fly to Chernobyl.
What is fascinating is Treasure Island is indeed not Fukushima or Chernobyl, but it’s right at our doorstep,” Vetter says.
An earthquake or a bunch of rain like we had last year can move soil around, he says. Same with future construction and development on the Island.
“There will be an enormous amount of digging and removal and changing of soil, which then would expose these radioactive materials and sources,” he says.
Even though most of these objects are low-level, Vetter says they’re still unsafe in the wrong hands.
“There’s the potential that you put it in your mouth, which of course will happen for small children who will run around and crawl around in the area in their sandboxes and whatever, and find that and put it in their mouth. So they ingest that material and then the major damage starts,” Vetter says.
Now, it’s hard to pinpoint any health problem, like cancer, specifically on radiation, unless a huge portion of the population gets sick. But Vetter says what’s almost more dangerous than the potential for radiation exposure is the way the Navy communicates and builds trust with the public.
“One health effect one can certainly measure in Fukushima is not due to the direct effect of radiation, but the indirect effect of the psychological impact. So the fear of the unknown, the fear of how much exposure I got...the uncertainty about the future, is causing absolutely measurable health effects in Fukushima in Japan.”
He says the same goes for Treasure Island. The Navy needs to gather and disseminate good data
“Here, certainly, it could’ve been done better in my personal opinion to keep or regain the trust in the public who will ultimately be exposed to that risk.”
Ben Reyes tucks his Geiger counter back into his bag. I follow him back to his house, along with Jan Burnham, the Hey Area question-asker. Reyes turns to Burnham and asks her: “Knowing what you know now, what’s your opinions and are you more fearful of what’s potentially lurking, the hidden treasures lurking beneath Treasure Island?”
“I still have a lot of questions. I don’t think I would want to live here until I knew more,” Burnham replies.
“What do you think about myself or even some of the people here that might not have the resources or the means to live here?” Reyes asks.
“I think that’s a sad situation, that people who can’t afford to live in San Francisco have to live in a place that’s possibly jeopardizing their health, and I think everybody should have the right to a safe and affordable place to live, so I understand why people want to live here, totally, but I would just want to know more,” Burnham says.
Reyes says yes, there’s a constant worry about radiation in the back of his mind. But he has his Geiger counter, he has stable housing. He’s more worried about what will happen when the city demolishes his apartment to make way for new the development San Francisco hopes to complete in the next two decades. Residents who’ve been on Treasure Island longer than 10 years will get relocation assistance. He’s likely to get kicked out, with very little help.