San Francisco leaders on Tuesday joined the Bayview community in mourning the loss of one of its most passionate protectors.
After falling into a coma, long-time Bayview resident, environmental and community advocate Marie Harrison died Sunday from complications related to interstitial lung disease, a condition that caused her to use an oxygen machine in recent years. She was 71.
“She was a tireless advocate for environmental justice and for working to ensure the shipyard is 100 percent safe and clean,” said District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors hearing. “I will miss her dedication to protecting our community from harmful substances.”
On June 26, Harrison was recognized in the board’s chamber for her decades of work to bring environmental, health and social justice to the Bayview Hunters Point community.
Harrison’s oldest daughter, Arieann Marie Harrison, described her late mother as “small but mighty.”
“It was so easy for her to fight for people who didn’t have a voice. She might have been the littlest person in the room but she was the loudest,” said Arieann.
From fighting the displacement of public housing tenants to booting the PG&E power plant out of the Bayview and pressing for transparency in the radioactive cleanup of the Hunters Point Shipyard, Harrison tackled disparities in all shapes and sizes. She twice ran for District 10 supervisor, and for years contributed to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
A native of Kansas City, Mo., Harrison moved to the Bayview with her family in 1966, where her father found work at the toxic shipyard. Harrison would later spend several years working at the Superfund site herself.
Harrison slipped into the role of community organizer in the 1990s when she faced displacement from the Geneva Towers in Sunnydale, a troubled public housing project that was slated for demolition and reconstruction into over 300 housing units, according to Arieann.
“When they were tearing down the towers, my mother had concerns about the displacement of the residents and the gentrification that started to take place,” said Arieann. “A lot of people had no place to go. There was no promise or a guarantee that people would be able to reoccupy the new units. There wasn’t a plan for [the developers] to place old tenants in the new building sites.”
Thanks to Harrison’s advocacy, a list of former tenants were included in the development agreement — after Harrison agreed that she would not occupy a new unit there.
“She was not on that list. They excluded her from that, and she agreed to this. Not many knew about this,” said Arieann. “At the end of the day it wasn’t about her.”
Harrison transitioned her family back to the Bayview, where she had her organizing work cut out for her.
Harrison threw her weight behind fighting for shuttering the PG&E Hunters Point power plant in 2006, which she blamed for her grandson’s deteriorating health conditions.
“She forced them to do a better cleanup than they would have done,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, who met Harrison in the ‘90s, before the organization formed.
In 1997, Angel recruited Harrison as campaign adviser for Greenaction.
“During the cleanup at the Hunterspoint PG&E site, we discovered from folks in Kettleman City, which has the largest hazardous landfill in the U.S., that [San Francisco was sending soil containing] PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] there from Hunters Point,” said Angel. “Marie brought people from Hunters Point to Kettleman City, forcing them to stop dumping PCBs.”
Harrison also pushed for accountability and civilian oversight of the radioactive cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard, a former naval base slated for development into more than 10,500 units of housing. While city officials ensured nearby residents and shipyard workers that their health was not endangered by the development of the contaminated site, Harrison grew suspicious.
For 16 years Harrison served on the federally mandated Restoration Advisory Board, providing civilian oversight to the cleanup, and questioned its sudden dissolvement by the navy after members took a vote of no confidence in a San Francisco Public Health official overseeing the cleanup.
Her doubts were validated when reports surfaced last year that Navy-contractor Tetra Tech, which was responsible for a majority of the shipyard’s cleanup, produced fraudulent samples and two former company supervisors were later sentenced to federal prison for falsifying records, among other things.
One of Harrison’s last battles was the ongoing fight to “stop Build LLC’s mega development at the India Basin,” said Angel.
“Greenaction appealed because the project’s own Environmental Impact Report produced by The City concluded that there will be significant harmful, unmitigatable air pollution forever,” said Angel, adding that Harrison led the group’s testimony at the Board of Supervisors in November.
“With her oxygen tank, she stood in front of the board who, several months earlier, honored her for her work at the shipyard,” said Angel.
The board ultimately voted to reject the appeal — a decision that he said greatly pained Harrison, he said.
“The fight continues — we will unite to fight in her honor,” Angel said.
Harrison is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren. A memorial celebration will be held May 18 at noon at St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 825 Newhall St.
By Brian Rinker, Kaiser Health News
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