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Toxic Acres 

The fill below Treasure Island is filled with dangerous toxins left by the Navy

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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The sun is disappearing behind the Golden Gate Bridge, the lights of San Francisco's skyline are shimmering in the early-evening twilight, and Chris Grasteit, who has come home to his rented four-bedroom townhouse on Treasure Island, is savoring the moment.

"You'd have to be a fool not to appreciate a view like this," says the divorced father of three children. He's surveying a million-dollar vista from the apartment he and the kids share in what once was military housing before the former Treasure Island Naval Air Station closed in 1997. From his place on Westside Drive, near the island's northwest corner, nearby Alcatraz — barely two miles across the water — is close enough that some of the neighbors complain that its foghorn keeps them awake at night.

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.

The plan, which has thus far garnered generally favorable reviews from environmentalists, assumes that a long-hoped-for transfer of ownership of the island from the Navy to the city takes place. It also assumes that the two entities reach a deal on just how much the transfer costs, including who pays to clean up the environmental mess left behind from half a century of military use.

All of which brings us back to Grasteit's island neighborhood.

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.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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