Treasure Island’s Secret Booty: Radioactivity

Monday, August 20, 2012

Toxic contamination was not an unknown factor when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 in June 2011 to approve a $1.5 billion commercial/residential development on the former Treasure Island Naval Station site that would be home to 19,000 people.

The Navy had documented the ammunition bunkers and solid waste dumps that littered the manmade island sitting in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, including sites dedicated to decontaminating radioactive materials. And local publications like SF Weekly had written about the lurking dangers as far back as 2006 (“Toxic Acres”).

But a recent report by the Department of the Navy has revealed that its earlier mapping of the island’s radioactive sites missed a lot, resulting in a haphazard cleanup that left unmarked hot spots in unexpected locations. Military activities involving radiation were far more extensive than earlier believed and documentation had been hidden or ignored for decades.

Treasure Island was originally created by the federal government from landfill in 1937 and hosted the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939-40. It was going to serve as Pan American World Airways headquarters, but was turned into a naval base during World War II. After the war the Navy continued to use it for various activities until the base was decommissioned in 1996.

A small number of people continued to live on the island, many in ex-military townhouses with spectacular bay views and cheap rents, or as part of a homeless relocation effort run by 20 local agencies. 

In the intervening years, there were discoveries and cleanups of dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—all highly toxic chemicals—but concern about radioactive contamination remained relatively low-key until recently.

The new report from the Navy, released in August, describes for the first time the extensive radiation-related activities on the island during and after the war and adds new potential hot spots to its maps. The latter is critical because companies hired to do radioactive cleanup were hauling contaminated soil from those sites and dumping it all over the place.

The Navy embarked upon its newest study of the island after cleanup crews were finding radiation in spots thought to be clean, some of them in areas targeted for the new mega-development.

Officials at the state Department of Toxic Substances Control say the new-found radioactivity is not a problem.

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

The California Department of Public Health issued a notice of violation in 2011 against the main contractor conducting the cleanup for the Navy for relocating dirt from sites without testing it for radioactivity.

In May, the Department of Toxic Substances Control accused the Navy of rushing its cleanup, not testing properly for radioactivity and not being open with state officials about what it was doing. Although the Navy still officially refers to radioactive contamination on the island as negligible, it has hauled 1,000 truckloads of radioactive material off the island.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Radiation History on Treasure Island More Widespread than Reported (by Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen)

Toxic Acres (by Ron Russell, SF Weekly)

S.F. Approves Treasure Island Plan (by Will Kane, San Francisco Chronicle)

Treasure Island Naval Station Historical Radiological Assessment (Department of the Navy) (pdf)

U.S. Navy Map of Contamination Areas (pdf)

Executive Summary of Draft Report on Treasure Island Contamination (Department of the Navy)

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