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Diseaseville 

Asthma, cancer, and other illnesses occur at higher-than-average rates in Hunters Point. Many residents blame the nearby Navy shipyard, one of the most contaminated ex-military bases in the nation.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
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Keith Tisdell and his fiancee, Shaaron Green-Peace, have lived in a motor home parked outside their town house for the past year. Their parking-lot home sits atop a hill that looks out across San Francisco Bay. The view is breathtaking, though Tisdell and Green-Peace would just as soon not experience it morning, noon, and night.

Back in January 2002, a sewer backed up, flooding much of the first story of their home in Mariner's Village. The couple called their insurance agent, who sent a cleaning contractor to take care of the mess. The contractor ripped up the wet carpet and set up air blowers throughout the house, a fairly common response to a flood. But the home that Tisdell and Green-Peace shared is not a common one.

Originally part of the Hunters Point Shipyard, what is now Mariner's Village once was a collection of buildings that the U.S. Navy used for office, housing, and other purposes, some of which are unclear today. In September 1980, at the direction of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency took possession of the property and turned the former Navy buildings into town houses, which were sold to low-income residents through a federally subsidized program. Shaaron Green-Peace bought her home in 1998.

After the cracked sewer pipes that had caused the flooding were replaced, Tisdell and Green-Peace, still trying to dry their belongings, soon began smelling and tasting something oddly foul. "My tongue would just start swelling up and tingling," Green-Peace says. "There was like this burning inside my mouth."

A few months later, the couple's insurance company sent an investigator; eventually, the couple learned that the tile underneath the carpeting, likely part of the original Navy building, was laced with asbestos. In the floodwaters, asbestos loosened from the flooring as it disintegrated, and once the water was gone, the contractor blew the dried asbestos throughout the house. It became clear that the home was uninhabitable.

Tisdell and Green-Peace filed a lawsuit against their homeowners' association over the flood and subsequent damages and have been living in the parking lot since their insurance payments ran out last year. As their housing disaster continued, they learned another unsettling fact: Earlier this year, researchers found that a Navy radiation lab headquartered just down the hill at the shipyard once stored materials of an as-yet-unknown type in the area where Tisdell and Green-Peace now live.

Tisdell, a former Marine of significant size, is not a shy man. He sits on an advisory board that deals with issues regarding the ongoing environmental cleanup of the former Hunters Point Shipyard, which the Navy wants to turn over to local control. He has been known to take both the military and the city's Redevelopment Agency to task over environmental and health concerns. Clearly, his passion is born of a frustration fed, in part, by his living situation. "Why would the asthma rate be so great up here in Mariner's Village?" he asks rhetorically, standing in the parking lot above the shipyard. "A lot of people have skin problems up here that go away when you go somewhere else.

"They need to make the homeowners feel that this is a safe environment. That way, the only thing we have to worry about is the shipyard. We don't have to worry about where we stay."


In the 1940s, the Hunters Point Shipyard was a mainstay of the Navy's Pacific fleet and offered a steady supply of industrial jobs to blue-collar workers, many of them African-American; those jobs spawned an adjoining residential community. In 1974, the base closed, putting hundreds of people out of work, but the neighborhood of Hunters Point remained. For the past decade, the Navy has been engaged in a massive environmental cleanup of the former shipyard property, considered by many observers to be one of the most thoroughly contaminated sites in the country.

Mounting evidence strongly suggests that the shipyard's legacy of pollution spreads beyond its current boundaries. Many of the properties in the neighboring community of Hunters Point were originally part of the naval base. Those properties, long in private hands, have not been tested for pollution, even though they were once part of a shipyard so contaminated that it has been placed on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priority List for environmental remediation.

Now, new research shows that the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, an applied nuclear research facility that handled, and more than occasionally mishandled, a wide variety of nuclear poisons, operated outside of the shipyard's present boundaries, in the area of what is now Mariner's Village. It is unclear precisely what NRDL operations were conducted there.

And because of complicated laws governing the environmental cleanup and transfer of military land and limited funding for environmental investigation, it may be years before the implicated Hunters Point properties can be reviewed for possible contamination.

In most cases, it is all but impossible to pinpoint a direct link between an environmental toxin and a particular illness. Because there has been no testing, it is impossible to say what, if any, pollutants exist on former shipyard land turned over to private use. There are a large number of pollution sources in southeast San Francisco, including an aging electric power plant.

But it seems highly likely that some environmental contaminant -- or set of contaminants -- is affecting the health of people who live in the Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods of San Francisco. Chronic asthma is rampant here. Lung cancer and heart disease, which can have environmental causes, are more prevalent in Bayview and Hunters Point than anywhere else in San Francisco. Less common diseases, like sarcoidosis, an illness that causes inflammation of the body's tissue, often in the lungs, also seem to show up more frequently among inhabitants of these neighborhoods. And one simple fact is known: Many of these residents live on what used to be Navy land that was not thoroughly screened for hazardous materials before it was moved to the private sector.

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Lisa Davis

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