Green Space: Seeking environmental justice in the Bayview

Residents who can’t breathe demand cleanup, reconsideration of India Basin project

Green Space: Seeking environmental justice in the Bayview

Today, as unhealthy wildfire smoke hung over San Francisco, residents and activists gathered at Bayview’s Martin Luther King Park to call on the mayor and Board of Supervisors to clean up Hunters Point Shipyard and reconsider approval of the India Basin Mixed-Use Project.

To “revitalize” the area, the project envisions an “urban village” with new homes and shops. But it also promises significant and unavoidable air quality impacts in an area already dealing with radioactive contamination from the shipyard, pollution from traffic, illegal dumping and unpermitted concrete plants and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.

In their call to city leaders, residents echoed the dying words of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, Elijah McClain and George Floyd: “We can’t breathe!”

“There are so many levels why we can’t breathe,” Renay Jenkins, a Bayview mother and community organizer with the local nonprofit Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, told me. “We basically have no justice.”

City and state officials are failing to honor the lives and environment of communities of color and low-income people. Just as California’s misdirected and colonial policies stopped Native Americans from maintaining forests with planned burns, policymakers today are ignoring community voices and undermining a healthy future for us all. San Francisco must act now for residents in Bayview and beyond.

In addition to reconsidering the India Basin Project, San Francisco must demand comprehensive retesting and a full cleanup of the shipyard and adjacent areas. The City’s Public Health Department officials have said there’s no reason to worry about radioactive waste citing helicopter scans that determined the area was safe for new housing. But the scans were not sensitive enough to make that determination — a fact that officials knew.

This means contamination, which has likely contributed to high levels of cancer and chronic diseases in the historically Black neighborhood, may still exist at toxic levels. Residents want complete removal of the toxic waste, which poses a danger now and as sea levels rise.

“We have memories of our family, friends and loved ones who have passed away from cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure,” Leaotis Martin, president of the Bayview Hunters Point Mothers and Fathers Committee, told me. “We’re still alive and we want the people in office to do their job and put our lives first.”

San Francisco needs to prioritize the health of Bayview residents, as well as those in other neighborhoods facing disproportionate pollution levels. Investigators have also found radioactive waste on Treasure Island, and state officials recognize significant air pollution in SoMa and the Tenderloin due to major roadways and diesel emergency generators. Many residents, including those in old Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings, lack indoor air filtration systems to help.

Last year, environmental justice nonprofit, Brightline Defense, was selected by the state to create a community-driven air quality monitoring program in SoMa and the Tenderloin. The nonprofit is working with Central City SRO Collaborative and Community Youth Center of San Francisco to install new air sensors and collect localized data.

Although the state hasn’t recognized air quality concerns in Chinatown, Brightline Defense secured its own funding to install air sensors there as well.

“We could wait for state definitions to include communities we know face burdens or we could move now,” Eddie Ahn, the executive director of Brightline Defense, told me.

The data will help city officials develop better policies in the future. But there is momentum today.

The County Transportation Authority is already exploring how a fee to drive downtown — congestion pricing — could clean the air and reduce traffic. Officials are already seeing health and safety benefits of the Slow Streets program. The technology exists now to require both public officials and corporations to use emission-free, electric cars and delivery trucks in neighborhoods with high air pollution.

Simply put, our leaders should ensure that once the smoke clears, all San Franciscans can breathe. There are too many lives at stake to continue talking about the right values without putting them into practice.

“I’m tired of going to San Francisco General Hospital,” Little Bit, a Bayview resident of 15 years with three sick loved ones, told the crowd yesterday. “This is not a joke.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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