By Ron Russell
Published: February 21, 2007
In a surprise move, the Navy has announced it will conduct yet another round of environmental cleanup in a residential area that is home to more than 2,000 people at the former Treasure Island Naval Air Station.
The Navy says it will haul away 31,000 cubic yards — or 1,800 truck loads — of soil contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and other harmful substances from within the community of city-administered rental houses at the north end of the island.
Word of the latest cleanup effort has added to the unease among some residents long critical of the pace and scope of the Navy's remediation work on the island. That's because the Navy now plans to expand the decontamination effort to an area encompassing seven apartment buildings that were supposedly in a safe area.
"To me it adds a question mark as to what the Navy has been saying about the safety of the [housing complex] all along," says resident and community activist Emily Rapaport. "Do I think this really takes care of the contamination problem? Of course not."
The 90-acre tract of former military housing — dubbed Area 12 on maps the Navy devised to help clean up toxic waste at the former base — was once the site of ammunition bunkers and solid waste dumps. Some of the houses were built on the site of a former training school for radioactive waste removal that operated from 1957 to the mid-1970s.
Although federal and state authorities approved the reuse of Area 12 for rental use in 1999, two years after the base closed, some critics have long questioned whether people should be allowed to live there at all. Tenants must sign disclaimers that, among other things, prohibit them from planting vegetables in their yards.
As reported earlier by SF Weekly ("Toxic Acres," May 24, 2006), the Navy had said as recently as last May that the remaining soil pollutants posed no significant health threat to residents and that its cleanup in Area 12 was essentially finished.
But a Navy spokesman now says that "additional analysis" of environmental testing conducted in 2003 indicates that more work was needed to substantially eliminate exposure to hazardous substances for current and future residents.
James Sullivan, the Navy's base-closure environmental coordinator, says the extended cleanup will be conducted in two stages, with most of it completed between March and August and the rest next year. The Navy intends to remove soil to a depth of 4 feet from several distinct areas within the housing compound.
Four of the targeted areas consist of abandoned apartment buildings that have long been fenced off. In one of those areas, testing in 2000 revealed PCBs in the soil at nearly 100,000 times the level deemed acceptable by the federal government.
Ned York, an official with the John Stewart Company, which manages the island's approximately 600 rental units for the city, says that of about 30 families directly affected, some have chosen to temporarily relocate elsewhere, while others have accepted rent-reduction offers and are staying put.
Under a massive real estate plan for Treasure Island, the former base housing will be demolished and Area 12 will become uninhabited wetlands and open space. But the developers' plans call for the rental units to remain for up to 10 years after construction of the master project starts. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which calls for the work to begin in 2009, it means that people could still be living in Area 12 until 2019 or beyond.
Christopher Grasteit, whose family moved to the island two years ago, is among those who plans to stay while his yard is dug up and replaced, but he isn't happy about it.
"It's really an eye-opener that [the Navy] is doing this," he says. "They tell us all along, 'Don't worry. The only places that are a problem are the areas behind the fences, and now this. A lot of people are wondering why the buildings where they live weren't fenced off to begin with."
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