Home to some 2,000 people, the cluster of ex-military townhouses on the man-made island at the edge of the ghostly former naval facility constitutes one of the city's more unusual — to say nothing of overlooked — neighborhoods.
Ever since 1999, when the crescent-shaped tract at the island's windy north end opened as city-controlled rental units barely two years after the last Navy families moved out, people have flocked there for the views and for the solitude of living in the middle of the bay, not to mention the relatively cheap rents. "Where else in the city could I find a four-bedroom this nice for $2,300 a month, utilities paid?" Grasteit asks. They live side by side with formerly homeless people drawn by another incentive: generous housing subsidies through the nonprofit Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative, known as TIHDI, a collaborative of some 20 agencies.
But another feature of the neighborhood — the fact that it is built atop contaminated soil that dates back to when the Navy first moved onto Treasure Island during World War II — is, perhaps understandably, less talked about. That, along with what some view as the artificial island's vulnerability — at least in its current condition — to a major earthquake, has prompted a few critics to question whether anyone should currently be living there at all.
Eventually, under a grandiose real estate development plan for the island being advanced by a group that includes political consultant Darius Anderson, Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle, and home-building giant Lennar Corp., the environmentally suspect 90-acre portion of the island where Grasteit and his neighbors live will be unoccupied.
Among the most ambitious real estate developments in the city's history, the plan is to create a self-sustaining miniature city of 15,000 or more residents on the island. It is to include high-rise and mid-rise residential towers — including a signature high-rise of perhaps 50 stories or more — hotels, a conference center, shops, restaurants, and an immense open space a third the size of Golden Gate Park.
Dubbed "Area 12" on maps the Navy devised to help clean up toxic waste on the island — much of it discovered since the base closed — the former base housing tract occupies an area once dedicated to ammunition bunkers and solid waste dumps. As military records show, in the 1950s and '60s, before any of the units were built, part of the neighborhood also was the site of a training facility for decontaminating radioactive waste.
As part of the island's transformation, the houses in Area 12 are to be demolished, the soil beneath them cleaned up, and the entire area is to be transformed as part of a so-called "Great Park," replete with hiking trails, wetlands, and ball fields.
But unlike the rest of the island, where most of the $100 million the Navy claims to have spent so far on environmental cleanup has been focused, Area 12 isn't scheduled to be uninhabited for up to 10 years after construction of the "new" Treasure Island begins. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which calls for construction to start in 2009, people could be living there until 2019 or beyond. "I really do find that to be unconscionable. It seems as if we may be playing roulette with people's lives," says San Francisco attorney Eugene Brodsky, a longtime island watchdog who serves on a citizen advisory board for Treasure Island.
While acknowledging the ongoing environmental issues in Area 12 — huge chunks of which have been fenced off — the Navy as well as state environmental officials insist that residents are not exposed to unacceptable risk.
"The areas behind the fences are a different story, but the rest of the areas we're looking at — how shall I put it — I won't say are free of contamination; but rather, they're relatively low, benign levels," says David Rist, of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the Navy's cleanup.
Yet, the slowness with which the Navy has approached the cleanup effort within Area 12 in the seven years since renters were allowed to move in, and the discovery of potentially harmful levels of toxic materials over that time in spots where such levels were previously thought not to exist, have contributed to skepticism. "No one will really know what's under [that neighborhood] until they dig it up and see what's there once the housing is gone," says Dale Smith, who has long served on a restoration advisory board for Treasure Island. The warning signs of the neighborhood's checkered environmental past are hard to miss — literally. Near the intersection of Gateway Avenue and Avenue B, for example, in a spot well suited to caution motorists about children at play, a sign warns that "this area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm." Similar warnings are scattered throughout the community.
Entire buildings are cordoned off behind green fences that bear somewhat understated disclaimers describing the areas as under "environmental investigation." In one of the fenced-off spots, testing in 2000 revealed polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the soil at nearly 100,000 times the level deemed acceptable by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Since the 1970s, when most PCB production was banned, medical studies have linked the family of chemical compounds to immune system and nervous disorders as well as forms of cancer. Experts say humans may be exposed to PCBs through direct physical contact, ingestion, or, since PCBs may volatilize, through breathing air contaminated by them.
Similarly, there have been discoveries of dioxins, a family of compounds linked to birth defects and developmental abnormalities in children, beneath the playground at Treasure Island Middle School — recently closed for unrelated cost-cutting reasons. In 2002, after digging up the playground at a day-care center at the eastern edge of the neighborhood and replacing it with uncontaminated soil, the Navy acknowledged that a dioxin "hot spot" remains beneath the foundation of the building. The center, opened in 1985 when the base was still operating, serves mostly children whose parents are part of the TIHDI program.
Both the Navy and state health officials say that potentially harmful levels of PCBs, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxins, and other suspect chemical substances discovered in the neighborhood are almost entirely either under the foundations of buildings, where they pose no immediate risk, or are confined to the fenced-off areas. Nonetheless, before moving in, tenants must agree not to dig in the soil, not to plant anything that isn't in a raised container, and not even to allow their pets to "dig or disturb the bare soil" in their yards.
Saul Bloom, who heads the environmental group Arc Ecology, and who argued against the city using the housing for rentals while serving on a base reuse commission in the 1990s, still questions whether the rental units should be there. "I believed that it was inappropriate to open that area [to rental housing] then, and nothing I've learned since then has made me feel more comfortable," he says.
Rapaport doesn't have far to look for signs of trouble. Her building just off 13th Street is directly beside perhaps the most notorious fenced-off contamination zone in the entire neighborhood — a group of 24 abandoned apartment units clustered around a weed-strewn common area known as Halyburton Court.
According to Navy records, when a military cleanup team first investigated Halyburton in the fall of 1999, there was "no historical information" to indicate that chemical releases were a problem there. But investigators were in for a surprise. Soil testing revealed potentially unsafe levels of PAHs, and extraordinarily high concentrations of PCBs — up to 19,000 parts per million. The federal EPA regards anything beyond .22 parts per million as unacceptable.
"You've got people going into [the restricted areas] all the time," says Melanie Williams, 38, a formerly homeless mother of three children who was among the first tenants to move to the island seven years ago. She and others complain that Halyburton Court and other closed-off "environmental investigation" areas have become magnets for illicit activities, including drug-dealing and prostitution.
"They're like squats," says another longtime tenant, who asked not to be identified. "You see people going into [cordoned-off] units with sleeping bags. They party in there. Cars show up late at night and people get out and just disappear.
As for Halyburton Court, Navy officials say that none of the units were made available for lease before the contamination was discovered there. But that doesn't speak to the potential exposure of countless military families who resided in Halyburton Court and other now-off-limits units where high levels of contaminants have been found, from the 1960s until the base closed in 1997."
The intrusions aren't restricted to nighttime. On a recent visit, two teenagers could be seen skateboarding in a cordoned-off zone along the northwestern waterfront, not far from where there was a large hole in the fence. Residents say adults have been known to dig up plants in the off-limits zones for transplanting in their yards. "I doubt that the fences are any more of a barrier to contaminants than they are to people," says Emily Rapaport.
Asked about them, Sullivan, the environmental coordinator, says that there are no records available indicating who lived in what units. "We no longer have any records at the base or anywhere else that would tell us that," he says.
In contrast to Halyburton and other ex-housing quarters where environmental conditions are suspect, no visible evidence remains of another neighborhood legacy — the radiological training school that existed there from 1957 to 1969. The facility occupied several acres in the neighborhood's southwest corner, facing the San Francisco shoreline. The spot is now home to dozens of families living on Westside Drive and at the south end of heavily built-out Gateway Avenue.
The Navy began radiological warfare instruction on Treasure Island in 1946, at about the same time the U.S. military began conducting landmark nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The training went "live" in 1957 with the "commissioning" of the USS Pandemonium, a full-scale, above-the-waterline mockup of a 173-foot-long patrol craft. Built from salvage, the fake ship was plopped on the island for a singular purpose: to train sailors how to deal with radioactive contamination.
During the last several years the mock-up was in use, the exercises conducted there used short-lived radioactive isotopes with half-lives of only a few weeks. Records show that the training drills consisted of spreading radioactive material over the ship's surface and having sailors spray and scrub it down until it was decontaminated. Contaminated wastewater that didn't seep into the ground was funneled into huge above-ground tanks and stored until the water was no longer considered harmful, and then dumped into the bay through a drain pipe.
But during the Pandemonium's early years, until 1963, highly radioactive cesium-137 was routinely placed aboard the vessel in sealed containers in at least 11 locations, Navy documents show. Using cables from a central position, an instructor would withdraw one or more of the cesium sources from shielded wells, enabling students with monitoring equipment to locate "radioactivity" during training exercises.
In 1970, the ship was hauled to the northeast corner of the island away from the present-day housing tract, and the area was cleared to build more houses for base personnel. "I doubt that anybody ever even knew what had been there; I don't remember anyone in our family ever mentioning it," says Brett MacLean, 38, a self-described Navy brat who spent part of his teen years on Westside Drive during the 1970s.
Similarly, none of several persons interviewed for this story currently living on the site says they were aware that their home is on the location of a former decontamination facility. (It is not mentioned as part of the disclosures provided by the John Stewart Co.)
The Navy has given the site more or less a clean bill of health. But like other aspects of the lengthy and ongoing remediation effort at the former base, its assurances depends more on archival evidence than exhaustive field testing. In 2001, the Navy conducted radiological monitoring at 581 test trenches scattered across Area 12. But it has thus far resisted trenching within four identified former solid waste disposal areas, one of which cuts through the middle of the former decontamination site.
In a report released in February, the Navy variously declared that there is "no evidence" and "no documentation" to suggest that radiological materials were disposed of in the former solid waste sites. As for the use of cesium-137 at the training facility, the Navy's long-awaited radiological assessment contends that "throughout the history of the USS Pandemonium, no mention was ever made to indicate a problem" with the use of cesium. Acknowledging the paucity of records related to a former training site that went out of existence more than three decades ago, the report allowed as how the cesium's seals "were required to be leak-checked every six months.
The same report yields new information about the Navy's handling of a radium spill in another area of the base in January 1950, in which at least five students and other personnel were exposed. In that incident, a capsule containing about 40 milligrams of the highly radioactive material was inadvertently dropped in a laboratory at Building No. 233, a long-vacant, two-story wooden structure near the southeast corner of the island. It is deemed to have been the most serious radiological breach at the former base for which there is a record.
In a summary of the incident, the Navy referred to surfaces inside the building that couldn't be decontaminated as part of the cleanup operation. Last year, Dale Smith, the restoration advisory panel member, sought to know what became of the materials. The reply: that more than 200 barrels of radioactive waste generated from the spill was stored aboard the USS Independence at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard and later — the report does not say when — weighted with concrete and "sunk at sea."
After more than half a century, and despite Building No. 233's having been cleared for reuse within a year, the decrepit structure across the street from a little league ball field has recently come under renewed scrutiny as part of the Navy's overall cleanup of the island in preparation for its presumed transfer to the city of San Francisco. Barely a month ago, after years of open access, the Navy erected a fence around it.
As for Area 12, not only does it harbor some of the most troublesome environmental pollution yet to be dealt with as part of the Navy cleanup, it's also perhaps the most seismically vulnerable part of the 405-acre island. Originally conceived as a site for San Francisco's airport and home to the Golden Gate International Exposition that opened in 1939, the island was constructed in the 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To build it, the engineers dredged 29 million cubic yards of material — most of it sand — from the bottom of the bay and entombed it behind a perimeter rock dike.
Like the Marina District and other areas of the city built on fill, the entire island during a severe earthquake is susceptible to liquefaction, a phenomenon in which ground-shaking causes porous soil to turn mushy and collapse. In addition, geotechnical studies show that the areas closest to the dike — including much, if not all, of the housing area that hugs the northwest shoreline — are vulnerable to lateral spreading, in which ground-failure along a slope, in this case the dike, could be expected to spread laterally toward the island's interior.
Both phenomena occurred on Treasure Island during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Damage assessments compiled for the Navy describe "sand boils" appearing in the northern part of the island, a tell-tale sign of liquefaction in the underlying soil, and huge cracks several feet long in parking lots. Lateral spreading was blamed for some 44 gas, sewage, and water line breaks that disrupted services on the then-still-occupied base for up to three days after the quake.
The Loma Prieta quake registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. U.S. Geological Survey data indicate that ground motion on Treasure Island was among the strongest recorded in the Bay Area, despite the island's being some 60 miles from the epicenter.
However, the 1990 report compiled for the Navy following the earthquake, and obtained by SF Weekly, suggests that what happened on the island in 1989 pales compared to what could happen there during a similar or more powerful quake along either the San Andreas or Hayward faults with an epicenter closer than Loma Prieta.
It warned that such a quake could cause "substantially more severe shaking" on the island; that "liquefaction [could be] expected to be widespread," and that lateral spreading accompanied by liquefaction poses "a significant risk of widespread distress to the perimeter areas of the island during future large earthquakes."
The document concluded that "unless remedial measures to the dikes are implemented," lateral spreading during a magnitude 8 quake on the San Andreas fault could extend "several hundred feet into the island and thus encompass large portions of the island's interior." In that scenario, the report said, buildings such as those that constitute much of the housing stock in Area 12 could be "severely damaged."
The lease provided to tenants by the John Stewart Co. is straightforward in disclosing the seismic issue. It quotes from a geotechnical report prepared for the city in 1995 that concluded that the island's soil is of "poor quality and [is] subject to liquefaction and soil displacement (spreading)" similar to that of the Marina District. "That same report established that the areas located within 500 feet of the perimeter island seawall (dike) will be subject to the greatest soil displacement and spreading, and would consequently be subject to the most serious damage in the event of major earthquake," the lease states.
City officials, meanwhile, have long insisted that the island's current residents do not face unacceptable seismic risks. "All of us in San Francisco live with the risk of earthquakes," says Michael Cohen, who heads the mayor's Office of Base Reuse and Development. Cohen says that consulting engineers took seismic issues into account before certifying that the former base housing meets federal standards for "life safety" before the units were opened as rentals in 1999.
The firm responsible for the certification was Toft, de Nevers & Lee, engineers for the John Stewart Co. But a 1999 letter from C. Vincent de Nevers, one of the firm's partners, didn't sound like a ringing endorsement. "It continues to be my opinion that a significant seismic event could produce extensive structural and therefore economic damage [in the housing area] without resulting in material life safety impairment," de Nevers wrote. "Only in the unlikely event of a very major ground shift ... do I foresee the possibility of injury to occupants."