When he moved into his apartment on Treasure Island two years ago, Barklee Sanders was excited to turn it into a home. He planned to repaint and plant new grass. But he got a surprising warning.
“The landlord said we couldn’t dig in the backyard because it’s not safe,” Sanders told me. “Apparently, it’s safe for residents to live on Treasure Island and in these housing units, but, hey, don’t dig.”
Sanders intends to share his story before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee on Jan. 11. For years, residents, who are primarily Black and Latinx, and include formerly homeless, veteran and disabled people, have expressed concerns about their health on Treasure Island. The Navy has assured the public that its historic use of the site as a dump — in which radium was found buried — is safe. But Navy contractors responsible for similar testing at Bayview Hunters Point admitted to falsifying their soil reports.
It’s not surprising residents struggle to trust the Navy, which is why Supervisor Matt Haney called the hearing. After years of inaction, Treasure Island residents deserve transparency and accountability. They also could use a groundswell of action from San Franciscans who care about environmental justice and systemic racism.
“I would say that there are human rights violations in how people are treated,” Supervisor Haney told me. “Current residents should be treated more fairly and with respect.”
Although The City acquired Treasure Island from the Navy over 20 years ago, the Navy hasn’t completed cleanup. Last year, a basketball-size chunk of dirt containing radioactive material was found under the front door of one of Sanders’ neighbors.
And radioactive contamination is only one of the problems. Other dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury, have been found in the soil. Damp conditions, frequent flooding and plumbing failures have exposed residents to toxic black mold and asbestos in their homes.
“The health situation is pretty bad,” Carol Harvey, an investigative reporter who covers Treasure Island for the San Francisco Bay View National Black newspaper, told me.
At the upcoming hearing, Harvey plans to anonymously list residents’ health issues. She has photos of people’s painful skin rashes, pustules and lesions. She has reports of above average rates of miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects. Cancers and strokes are common. Bones break — an indication of radiation exposure. Family dogs have seizures.
Respiratory diseases are also prevalent. When Hope Williams moved to Treasure Island with her daughter in 2009 she was desperate to escape homelessness. She dutifully cleaned the black mold that grew around her windows and kept quiet to avoid eviction. Then Williams had a preterm birth. Her younger daughter was in and out of the hospital with respiratory issues. Her older daughter developed bronchitis.
In California, landlords must disclose mold in leases and ensure homes are habitable. Retaliation is illegal. But when Williams asked her property manager about the mold she was threatened with eviction and called a liar.
“They know you’re low-income and don’t have the resources to advocate,” Williams told me. “I paid my rent on time and was never a problem. All I did was advocate for a healthy place for my kids.”
The bravery of Williams, Sanders and other residents cannot continue to fall on deaf ears. The City has rightfully removed statues of Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra because they inflicted violence on Native Americans. The San Francisco Unified School District is renaming schools that honor other controversial figures.
But The City is completely failing the people of Treasure Island. Doctors and attorneys should volunteer to address residents’ health and legal issues. If The City cannot provide healthy homes on Treasure Island, it should provide equivalent housing in a safer area. It’s not leadership to move families to single occupancy residences in the Tenderloin.
San Franciscans who have marched and donated for Black Lives Matter and environmental justice should also demand action and relocation funding from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“This has been a dirty little secret,” Jeff Kline, a Treasure Island resident of more than 20 years and an advocate, told me. “What it takes to really move things is public outcry.”
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 robynpurchia.com.