Navy must settle radiation issues on Treasure Island

The City has grand plans to rebuild Treasure Island, a man-made land mass in the middle of San Francisco Bay with sweeping views of the downtown skyline.

But before the Navy transfers the land to San Francisco, contamination at the site from the now-decommissioned military facility needs to be cleaned up to a level that city officials, and not just the federal government, deem acceptable.

The latest concerns about contamination on the island come after reports by the Bay Citizen and the East Bay Express revealed previously unpublicized radiological contamination and a string of cancer cases among longtime residents. Although any link between the reported cancer and radiological contamination is strictly anecdotal, and not based on hard data, it is still quite concerning.

Contamination at the site, which the Navy shuttered as a base in 1997, stems from usage of the island for the cleanup and maintenance of ships used for atomic testing during the 1940s and ’50s. Cleanup efforts for the contamination have been ongoing, including the removal of more than 17,000 tons of low-level radiological material since 2007.

But assurances from officials about the safety of the island are completely insufficient. A state Department of Toxic Substances Control official told residents in a Tuesday night meeting that “Right now, the bottom line is it’s safe for the folks living here doing what they’re doing.”

He was addressing the fact that about 2,000 live on the island, a population of mostly low-income people who moved into the Section 8 and low-income housing that was opened as the Navy moved out.

For its part, during the community meeting Navy officials asked people who had concerns or had witnessed problems to contact the Navy — a circular pattern of thinking since most residents had shown up to voice concerns about the Navy’s handling of this matter.

Moving forward, San Francisco’s  Planning and Public Health departments need to craft an acceptable final cleanup plan that addresses how to track and mitigate any health risks surrounding the decontamination and future use of the land. This will not be an easy task for San Francisco to undertake. It will require coordination among agencies that otherwise might not sit at a table together.

But the burden of this issue should not fall totally on San Francisco. State and federal lawmakers must also ensure a successful outcome of this project. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi need to keep pressure on the Navy and be responsive to the residents of San Francisco. If Tuesday night’s meeting is an indication, the Navy is moving ahead with cleanup and listening to the residents and city officials only as a conciliatory gesture.

Supporters of development on Treasure Island have expressed concerns that the cleanup of this radiological material may slow the land transfer and long-term rebuilding of the island. That is a worthy concern, but it is not equal in importance to the long-term health of the people who live today on Treasure Island or may move there in the future. Once the island is transferred to San Francisco, all these problems become ours. So anyone who truly cares about the health of San Franciscans and the financial health of our city should focus today on ensuring that the Navy leaves Treasure Island in the best condition possible.

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