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Oct-18-2010 01:33printcomments

Treasure Island's Toxic Problem

Turns out that old Treasure Island Naval Station is some of the 'hottest' property in San Francisco...

Toxic piles at Treasure Island School
Toxic piles (Note school in background) For a larger version of this image, visit: calwatchdog.com

(SAN FRANCISCO) - The jet fighters raced across the sky maybe 500 feet above me. They were F-18s painted blue and yellow – the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatics team. They raced across San Francisco Bay last Thursday, alone and in pairs, splitting and diving and rolling and occasionally forming up into four-ship diamonds so tightly packed it looked like a person could step from plane to plane.

The jets were practicing for an air show so the Navy could show off what it considers the very best in personnel, training and equipment. Their presence over the old Treasure Island Naval Station that day was ironic, because I was visiting the island to see the Navy at its most decrepit and toxic.

Turns out that old Treasure Island Naval Station is some of the hottest property in San Francisco. Maybe the hottest, in fact, though not in the way reuse officials, politicians and land developers want to admit.

That’s because a disputed portion of Treasure Island – the Navy says just a few sites, others say possibly the entire island – is radioactive. What to do about the radiological contamination has become the great unmentionable in the quest to turn the old, rapidly decaying base into San Francisco’s “premier date-night locale,” as one aide to Mayor (and Lieutenant Governor candidate) Gavin Newsom recently put it.

The extent of the danger posed by what lay behind the fences and radiation hazard signs isn’t something the Navy likes to talk about. At public hearings of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) – a citizens panel that observes all base cleanup efforts, but takes no action – Navy officials and contractors go to great lengths to say all is well, that there are only a few radioactive sites on the island, and cleanup efforts are proceeding at pace, even though the Navy is well behind schedule.

San Francisco’s hottest property may be Treasure Island,
where plans for glitzy development are threatened by the
Navy’s legacy of radioactive waste

“The overall cleanup is going very well,” said Nathan Brennan, a member of the Treasure Island RAB. “The project was supposed to take one year, but we’re going into year three. They have to go deeper, and they keep finding a little more, a little more. But the Navy is hoping to finish soil cleanup in six to eight months.”

And yet after I made two phone calls to the Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment Commission (which the Defense Department inexplicably condenses into the acronym BRAC) — the office that handles all base reuse issues — asking for the status of the radiological cleanup, all I received was a terse, dismissive statement by e-mail.

“The Navy has a Radiological investigation and cleanup Program at former Naval Station Treasure Island, conducted in coordination with the State of California and the U.S. EPA,” said Jim Sullivan, BRAC’s Environmental Coordinator for Treasure Island. “Copies of reports are available in the Information Repositories at the Navy Caretaker Site Office at Treasure Island, and at the San Francisco Main Public Library. The Navy provides information updates on the entire cleanup program at the bimonthly Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meetings, held on the third Thursday of every second month at 7:00 pm on Treasure Island.”

Others, one of whom agreed to speak anonymously because the person is not authorized to talk to the press, said something very different.

“Radiological waste is a huge variable,” said one person closely tied to the clean-up efforts. “The groundwater is very high – remember, you can put very activated material in a foot of water and not see it. There’s just no way to know if the whole island is toxic.”

Visitors to the man-made, 403-acre island these days see nothing but charm and opportunity at the entrance. There, palm trees sway over a marina, snack bar and an old art deco administration building that doubled for Berlin Airport in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Banners proclaiming “Treasure Island: Your Recreation Destination” flutter in the breeze.

The city of San Francisco has big, $6 billion plans for TI. A 60-story high-rise. Swanky hotels. Eight thousand new housing units and condos – some for low-income residents, but many for the upper tax brackets. Gorgeous parks, too. At a ceremony in August, Mayor Newsom called it “arguably the most environmentally friendly infill development in American history.” (Newsom’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story).

For San Francisco, the future of Treasure Island looks a lot like its very distant past. The island didn’t exist before 1936. That’s when the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) began dumping 30 million cubic yards of fill into the waters just north of Yerba Buena Island. The island’s original purpose was to house the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, a kind of world’s fair. After the fair there was talk of paving it over entirely and turning it into San Francisco Airport, but that proved to be just talk. In 1941, the Navy took over the island as part of America’s massive war mobilization. They held it until 1997, when it closed as part of the Pentagon’s base closure efforts to save money.

During the five decades the Navy controlled the base, they used it for a variety of tasks – most notably, for the purposes of this story, as a training center for nuclear decontamination. That began in 1947, according to the Navy’s 250-page Treasure Island Naval Station Historical Radiological Assessment, released in February 2006.

“Of more significance relative to TI, was the recognition of the need to prepare for the potential of atomic warfare,” states the Assessment. “Command History for the period 1 October 1946 to 10 December 1946 reported that a letter was received from the Bureau of Naval Personnel that directed setting up a course in Radiological Safety to furnish naval officers with the specialized training necessary to evaluate and combat atomic weapon damage. In January of 1947 the fourth floor of the Damage Control School, Building #7, was converted into a suitable location for the Radiological Safety School. The facility consisted of three lecture rooms, a laboratory suitable for demonstrating practical exercises, a meter repair and stowage room, and a room for storing a radioactive source needed for the practical exercises.”

This was a time of nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific, and the Navy needed to clean its target ships before it could study them. All wars, it seemed in these early days of the Cold War, were going to be atomic wars, and the Navy needed to know how to operate in such environments.

According to Nathan Brennan, a member of the Treasure Island RAB, part of the training involved the hiding of radioactive buttons around the training school, and then students armed with Geiger counters would try to find them. At first, things seemed to go well. But then in January 1950 (the Assessment does not give the exact date), someone spilled 40 milligrams of radium in a first-floor lab of Building 233.


“Since many of the occupants of Building 233 left the building before the extent of the spill was full identified, radioactive contamination was carried by personnel (on shoes, clothing etc) to personal automobiles and personal residences,” states the Assessment. “Numerous innovative decontamination techniques were utilized to control and contain and eventually remove the radium contamination… More than 200 barrels of radioactive waste were generated and were stored aboard the USS Independence at Hunters Point Shipyard. The drums were weighted with concrete and were sunk at sea at a depth of more than 100 fathoms.”

Cleanup of the building, which was done to the far less stringent standards of 1950, took about six months.

Of course, that was 60 years ago. “Any radionuclide that could have decayed through 10 half-lives since its time of use at NAVSTA TI is no longer considered a radionuclide of concern,” the Assessment helpfully notes. But then there’s the Assessment’s table of “Radionuclides of Concern,” which lists 14 isotopes, including Cesium-137, Thorium-232, Radium-226, Strontium-90 and the ever-popular Plutonium-239, that all made an appearance at one time or another on the Treasure Island base. These isotopes, some with half-lives in excess of a thousand years, are all still a big concern.

There is more... to finish reading this article by CalWatchDog's Anthony Pignataro, visit this link: Treasure Island’s Toxic Problem




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