Bayview-Hunters Point Leads the Charge Against a Rising Tide of Pollution

As concern over environmental change rises, one neighborhood seeks to close the "climate gap."

A sign warns of toxic landfill in Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco Tuesday, Oct. 4. 2016. (Dan Chambers/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Rising waters. Water-borne illnesses. Mental-health issues. Respiratory problems. A recent Department of Public Health report on how climate change will affect the city reads like a guide to the apocalypse, complete with floods and plagues of mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents.

While climate change affects every single person, some San Franciscans are more vulnerable than others. According to DPH, those living in low-income neighborhoods will be disproportionately affected by changing temperatures, rising sea levels, and the accompanying health issues. There’s even an official term for this: climate gap.

But one neighborhood in the city refuses to take the impending march of disaster lying down. Bayview-Hunters Point is rallying to change the environment one plant, petition, and meeting at a time.

Environmental vulnerability has made headlines across the country in the past few weeks, following the news that President Donald Trump is planning to cut $2 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency. These cuts will affect state grants for cleaning up lead, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and for the Environmental Justice league, which helps preserve the environmental rights of the nation’s vulnerable and low-income communities.

Statistically, San Francisco is a wealthy city, but anyone who lives or works in the 49 square miles knows that financial privilege is not distributed evenly across neighborhood lines. San Francisco has the highest level of income inequality in California, says DPH; white households make an average of $100,000 per year, whereas Black households bring in only around  $30,000.

Income was just one of the factors public health officials looked at when determining which neighborhoods would be most affected by climate change. They also looked at demographics such as age and race; environmental factors such as tree cover and air pollution; exposure to hazards such as flood inundation, storm surge and air pollution; infrastructure factors like housing quality, overcrowding, and air conditioning; transportation access and mobility, and pre-existing health conditions.

After reviewing all the data, it was concluded that Chinatown, Downtown/Civic Center, the Financial District, Mission Bay, SoMa, and Visitation Valley are the neighborhoods where residents are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

However, it’s Bayview-Hunters Point that has the winning combination of being adjacent to the rising bay, which is expected to rise 11 inches by mid-century, as well as sitting on flood plains.

Socioeconomically, the neighborhood has the lowest employment rate in the city, and the second-highest number of low-income families, after Chinatown and Civic Center. Infrastructure is also slim, with limited transportation options and few grocery stores, meaning that if flooding or power outages took place, there would fewer resources to depend upon than someone who might be living in the Western Addition.

For decades, Bayview-Hunters Point was home to a shipyard, coal and oil plants, and even a laboratory that decontaminated ocean vessels exposed to atomic weapons. The highly polluted southeastern part of the city is in dire need of environmental cleanup, and climate change is making that need more urgent, as rising tides threaten to swallow toxic sites on land. But thanks to a number of active organizations, change is actually happening. 

One of these groups advocating for the community is Literacy for Environmental Justice, founded in 1998. Executive Director and Program Manager Patrick Marley Rump leads the work of greening the neighborhood’s streets with plants and trees, hosting volunteer cleanups, training the community in environmental careers, and running a massive native plant nursery, which employees local youth and adults. Its plants are used to support the city’s southeastern shoreline, and are sold for other city projects. (SF Public Utilities Commission, the Port, PG&E and Friends of the Urban Forest are all clients.)

Rump joined the group one year after it was founded, when he was living in the neighborhood.

“I felt like if I was going to be focusing on restoring the environment and engaging people, the community I lived in was the place where work most needed to happen,” he tells SF Weekly. “And it’s kept me here for 20 years.”

Bayview-Hunters Point’s environmental problems are enormous, and Rump isn’t one to gloss over them. Smog from freeway traffic blows into the neighborhood, trash is often illegally dumped in by city residents and by small contractors who don’t want to pay a fee, and there’s a lot of “unseen pollution” in the soil and water.

These types of pollution affect everyone in the neighborhood. But for a long time, residents trying to contact the city about cleanups and air-quality issues encountered voicemail boxes and red tape, a disempowering barrier when working to create local change.

To fix this problem, grassroots group Greenaction worked with the neighborhood to create the Bayview-Hunters Point Environmental Justice Response Task Force, a community group that focuses on highlighting the voices of people living in the district. One of the most successful parts of this venture has been the creation of IVAN, an online method for “identifying violations affecting neighborhoods.” Through IVAN, residents can anonymously post about issues that need attention from the city, ranging from noise pollution to illegal dumping to a dust storm caused by construction.

As part of the program, community members are invited to a monthly meeting specifically to address issues of climate change. February’s IVAN meeting included representatives from Greenaction and the EPA, and the minutes offer a peek into the issues residents face. (Three citizens reported a “bad/strange odor,” for instance.) After registering the complaint, the Air District found a landscaping operation to be at fault. A sore throat was guessed to be caused by construction at India Basin Park.

Fighting illegal dumping one site at a time, asking for the city’s help identifying strange odors, and filling up the shoreline with plants may all seem like tiny steps toward fighting off a global crisis but the pressure of rising sea levels, changing temperatures, and the accompanying health problems actually help bring some attention to the neighborhood.

“When you have these huge problems, opportunities often come up,” Rump says. “Right now, there’s more emphasis on shoreline restoration, because of the focus on climate stabilization, flooding stabilization, and carbon sequestering related to greening shoreline environments.”

In 2013, LEJ helped build the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park on land owned by the Port. The sustainably built educational center focuses on building community and teaching youth about the environment, through workshops on native plants, nature walks, and coastal clean-up events.

Recently, the neighborhood claimed a big victory when the EPA and the Recreation and Parks Department dedicated $1.1 million to clean up 900 Innes Ave., a 2.4-acre plot of polluted waterfront property that will be converted into a public park.

Another waterfront cleanup project is being prepared for Yosemite Slough, a muddy, polluted, 1,600-foot stretch of the Bay between Hunters Point and Candlestick Park.

And in January of this year, 22 signs were installed around the Bayview reminding truck drivers not to leave their diesel vehicles idling for more than five minutes, in order to cut down on toxic air pollution and reduce the effects of global warming.

While the neighborhood is slowly getting attention, Rump credits the community with creating environmental change. “It’s really about resiliency, and Bayview-Hunters Point is a resilient community,” he says. “I feel confident if we get word out and come together we can really make a difference.

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