Toxic Acres

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

The firm responsible for the certification was Toft, de Nevers & Lee, engineers for the John Stewart Co. But a 1999 letter from C. Vincent de Nevers, one of the firm's partners, didn't sound like a ringing endorsement. "It continues to be my opinion that a significant seismic event could produce extensive structural and therefore economic damage [in the housing area] without resulting in material life safety impairment," de Nevers wrote. "Only in the unlikely event of a very major ground shift ... do I foresee the possibility of injury to occupants."

His assertion that the possibility of such a ground shift was "so remote that it constitutes an acceptable risk" even prompted a friendly corrective from Michael Cohen, in his then-capacity as a deputy city attorney. "I want to clarify that at no point in time has the city and county of San Francisco or the Treasure Island Development Authority (or anyone else that I am aware of) agreed that the possibility of a major seismic movement ... is so remote that it constitutes an acceptable risk," Cohen wrote. "To the contrary," he added, the city was relying on de Nevers' "written certifications" that the housing units met Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines for "life safety."

No major seismic reinforcement around the perimeter dike has occurred in the 16 years since the Navy's consultants first raised the issue after the Loma Prieta quake. And none is anticipated until after construction of the hoped-for Treasure Island redevelopment project gets started, which, under the most optimistic scenario, may be at least three years away.

Meanwhile, Treasure Island watchdog Eugene Brodsky insists that based on seismic issues alone, no one should currently occupy the island rental housing.

Brodsky is critical of preliminary financial plans that suggest annual income from the rentals — currently estimated at about $10 million — may be used to offset the cost of the development envisioned by the Anderson/Burkle/Lennar team. Specifics of those plans aren't expected to be known until a so-called "term sheet" is unveiled, perhaps this summer. But the latest iteration of the plan, released earlier this year, envisioning the rental housing to remain for up to a decade after construction starts, would make the Area 12 neighborhood the last remnant of the "old" Treasure Island to be razed.

"To me there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that residents there are at considerable [seismic] risk," says Brodsky. "The question is why should that be?"

His answer: "The revenue from the rentals is a cash cow to help pay for the development. Knowing what we know about the north end of the island, that's something that should be reconsidered."

Meanwhile, such concerns seem distant to many of the island's inhabitants, whether so-called "market-raters" enamored of the cheap rents and island living, or the formerly homeless people served by TIHDI, many of whom are appreciative to have a place to live.

"People living out here have traditionally felt like the city's stepchildren," says Alice Pilram, who with her husband moved to adjacent Yerba Buena Island three years ago after their daughters went off to college. "It isn't that the environmental issues aren't real, but there's enough on people's agendas already so that those things are sort of put on the back burner."

Melanie Williams, the formerly homeless mother and seven-year Area 12 veteran, agrees.

"I know there's environmental stuff to worry about," she says. "But the way I look at it, if it was good enough for the Navy people, it's probably good enough for us."

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