Toxic Acres

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

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.

Chris Grasteit's home is on the site of a former radiological decontamination training facility.
James Sanders
Chris Grasteit's home is on the site of a former radiological decontamination training facility.
A child emerges from an off-limits zone.
James Sanders
A child emerges from an off-limits zone.

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.

From almost any angle, the view from Emily Rapaport's apartment gives her pause. Like a lot of her neighbors, the unemployed medical researcher's decision to move to Treasure Island four years ago was based partly on economics and partly on the allure of island living. But she freely acknowledges that if she had children, she wouldn't stick around.

"It isn't reassuring to live in a jumble of warning signs," says Rapaport, who confines her vegetable gardening to a few large containers scattered across the patio of her townhouse. The pots are courtesy of the John Stewart Co., the firm contracted by the Treasure Island Development Authority, the ostensible state agency whose board is appointed by San Francisco's mayor to administer the rental housing.

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.

The find was troubling enough to prompt the Navy team to dig up part of the playground at Treasure Island Elementary School, next door to Halyburton Court, during winter break that year. Navy records say that nothing significant was found during the trenching, but records also reveal that neither was any chemical sampling conducted on the school property.

The next summer, the Navy dug up and replaced 11,300 cubic yards of contaminated soil from Halyburton Court. But the deserted and overgrown enclave-within-a-neighborhood by no means enjoys a clean bill of health. As recently as last December, the same month that San Francisco Unified School District abruptly shuttered the elementary school (the middle school had already been closed) to cut costs, new tests within Halyburton Court revealed PCB levels of up to 1.5 parts per million, well in excess of acceptable health standards.

The units there, dating to the mid-1960s, are among the oldest structures in Area 12, built on the site of an old storage yard. Navy officials cannot say for certain what may have been the source of the off-the-charts PCB levels. Speculation is that they most likely derive from hydraulic fluids or leaky electrical equipment, says James Sullivan, the Navy's base-closure environmental coordinator for Treasure Island.

Sullivan insists that neither Halyburton Court nor any of the other fenced-off areas represent an unacceptable health risk to the residents of Area 12. "We're confident that the steps we've taken along with the city and state agencies to restrict access to certain areas sufficiently limits exposure for residents," he says.

But that may assume that the fences actually keep people out.

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