The Man Who Cried Dust

Christopher Muhammad's fight with Lennar over toxic dust has resulted in a restraining order against him, an accusation that he's a shakedown artist, and grudging respect from his rivals.

But Lennar broke its promises. The developer failed to install dust monitors at the beginning of construction. Then it reported to the city in August 2006 that its asbestos monitors didn't work for more than three months after major earth-moving work began in April 2006. After residents complained about dust levels, the city cited Lennar for various violations throughout 2006 and 2007. The air district eventually settled with the company for $515,000, the largest penalty in the agency's history for asbestos violations. Muhammad refers to it as "blood money." (The nonprofit he runs, the Center for Self-Improvement and Community Development, is suing Lennar for injunctive relief to stop construction.)

Muhammad says nobody from the city or the company told him there were dust control issues. But he says when students started to suffer from respiratory problems, bloody noses, and itchy eyes, he began to demand they be tested.

His blanket statement is at best a half-truth. There is no test to detect asbestos in the body, an assertion backed by a 2007 letter to the city's Department of Public Health (DPH) from the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta. The letter stated that the best way to monitor asbestos release is at its source. DPH agreed in January 2007 to estimate the "worst-case" exposure of the children during the months the monitors weren't functioning. A private environmental consulting firm hired by the city later concluded that the students were not exposed to dangerous amounts of dust.

At various times, DPH, the California Department of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the air district, a UCSF environmental health expert, and Arc Ecology have reported that the asbestos exposure from Parcel A does not present a significant long-term health risk.

Saul Bloom, the director of Arc Ecology, says that the Nation and its allies' insistence that the dust from Parcel A can be blamed for the Bayview's health problems distracts from addressing the more likely suspects in the environment, such as car and diesel exhaust, and mold and mildew in substandard housing. Since 2006, Arc Ecology has held the city contract to monitor the shipyard asbestos rates — which is billed to Lennar — but his organization has been working at the shipyard since 1983. Bloom's insistence on looking at the facts and not being swayed by political interests has led to him bump heads with the city, Lennar supporters, and Minister Muhammad. In the Bayview, that's about as independent as it gets.

"With Christopher Muhammad, he sees things within his own background — African-American community, not getting his fair share of development — and here's his opportunity to speak to those issues," Bloom said. "The detail issues, those aren't so important" to him.

But Muhammad has refused to accept official declarations from anyone that Lennar, despite its screw-ups, hasn't harmed anyone while working on Parcel A. As proof of his students' health problems, he has relied on the evaluation of the school's physician, Dr. Alim Muhammad.

At a redevelopment commission meeting in December 2006, Christopher Muhammad read a letter from the doctor, stating he had detected particles of serpentine rock in several students' lungs. The DPH committed to evaluate any children at the school who had health concerns related to dust exposure, and sent Dr. Muhammad a protocol for doing so in January 2007. Amy Brownell, the DPH environmental engineer assigned to the shipyard, says she has never heard back, and the school has presented no students for evaluation. DPH offered to meet with parents, students, and staff of the school for an information session. The answer was the same: none.

The Nation of Islam seemed interested only in disseminating its own message about the dust. In October 2006, Christopher Muhammad said during an interview last year, people connected with the school started knocking on doors to "educate" Bayview residents about the health risks. Robert Van Houten said he challenged a man accompanying school dean Leon Muhammad, who handed him a flyer talking about the cancer risks of the dust: "I said, 'You're scaring everybody,' and he got really defensive and said, 'Well, you're either with us or against us.'"

Next, the Nation of Islam sabotaged the Department of Public Health's own door-to-door campaign, which had been requested by Supervisor Sophie Maxwell in June 2007. According to a DPH memo, Leon Muhammad crashed an outreach training session at a nonprofit on Third Street, "contradicting the training content and asserting the DPH position [was] untruthful." Two days later, a group of about 10 adults and children from the school followed public health workers through the neighborhood and told residents that the workers had been paid by DPH to say those things and "Don't listen to them." The workers gave up after three hours.

There's no doubt the Nation's style leaves many feeling bullied. In the past, the Hunters Point Citizen Advisory Committee, a mayor-appointed body that advises the redevelopment agency on shipyard development, has requested police officers at the meetings when Muhammad and his allies were expected to show. At the Board of Supervisors meeting in July 2007, where Bayview residents complained of the ill- health effects of the construction, a Nation of Islam member stood on each level of the rotunda and at the elevators. "It's a form of intimidation, from our perspective," says Reverend Aurelius Walker, one of the pastors who will develop affordable housing on the Lennar construction site, who Muhammad insinuates are "paid operatives."

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