Radiation Contamination on Treasure Island More Widespread Than Reported

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by Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen

Radioactive contamination at the Treasure Island Naval Station, where San Francisco plans to build a high-rise community for 20,000 residents, is more widespread than previously disclosed, according to a new U.S. Navy report and other documents obtained by The Bay Citizen.

Although the Navy and one state agency say cleanup has been effective and remaining radiation levels are low, the state Department of Public Health expressed alarm as recently as May, saying earlier studies showing fewer radioactive sites led to a botched cleanup effort and the potential spread of contaminants both on and off the island.

The findings appear likely to complicate the environmental cleanup and new construction on Treasure Island after years of debate – much of it shielded from the public – over the island’s radioactive hazards. Internal emails and documents obtained by The Bay Citizen leading up to the findings reveal numerous new areas of concern squarely in the path of the planned development.

The draft report, dated Aug. 6, marks the first time the Navy has fully acknowledged that the island, created from landfill in 1937, was used as a repair and salvage operation for a Pacific fleet exposed to atomic blasts during the Cold War. The report came in response to state regulators, who pressed for details after cleanup workers found radioactive waste in unexpected locations.


Known potential sources of radiation on the island included a nuclear training ship intentionally doused in radiation and even glow-in-the-dark buttons handed out at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition held on the island.

Any radiation lingering from the discarded buttons was similar to that of a household smoke detector, the Navy told island residents in a 2007 newsletter. And the Navy in a previous 2006 report maintained that the two former locations of the dismantled training ship were free of radiation.

Six years later, the draft report describes a more significant legacy. Treasure Island was a 1940s ground zero for repairing, scrapping, recycling and incinerating material from ships that might have absorbed radiation from atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. One shop repaired cannon sights containing radioactive glow-in-the-dark material. And, the Navy has acknowledged, the training ship sites might not be radiation-free after all.

Since 1993, the Navy has been preparing the site for handoff to the city, which has agreed to pay $105 million for it. To protect the city from future liability, the deal requires a signoff from state health officials.

Those officials have raised questions about exposure for residents of the island. At an August 2011 meeting, a summary shows, the health department alleged that a Navy contractor might have inadvertently exposed children to radioactive dust at a Boys & Girls Club and a child development center on the island.

The Navy and state Department of Toxic Substances Control, a separate agency also monitoring Navy cleanup activities, said the Boys & Girls Club and child center never were contaminated with radioactive dust. They also say that, in general, radiation levels found on the island are too low to endanger human health – only slightly higher than natural radiation found in ordinary backyards.

However, in a Dec. 17, 2010 email, state public health official Peter Sapunor said Navy contractors had dug up and hauled off 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated dirt, some with radiation levels 400 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s human exposure limits for topsoil. Sapunor said he believed extensive radioactive material remained in the soil surrounding those excavations.

Emily Rapaport, president of Good Neighbors of Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, a neighborhood association, has lived on the island for a decade – one of its 2,800 current residents. She’s long adhered to unusual island requirements from the management company overseeing former Navy housing now rented out as apartments. Among them is growing plants in above-ground pots to avoid soil-borne chemicals, she said.

But Treasure Island’s complete radioactive history, Rapaport said, is something about which neighbors previously only speculated.

“They should have been more open and upfront, because there would have been people who would have chosen not to live here,” said Rapaport, who learned of the new Navy report from a Bay Citizen reporter.

Echoes of Hunters Point

The new report on Treasure Island mirrors complaints a decade ago at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, where the military long had claimed it lacked information about the history of the site’s Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. A subsequent cleanup at that site contributed to the delay of a 10,000-unit housing development by a consortium led by Lennar Corp., now scheduled for groundbreaking later this year.

Mayor Ed Lee is aware of the Treasure Island radiation issue, according to the deputy overseeing the development project, by another Lennar consortium. Michael Tymoff said San Francisco has urged the Navy to respond to California health officials’ demands for a thorough radioactive cleanup. But he added that his office doesn’t expect the latest disclosures to delay the summer 2013 groundbreaking for the $1.5 billion housing project.

In an interview, Navy environmental cleanup coordinator James Sullivan accused inexperienced state public health inspectors of making exaggerated allegations inconsistent with the Navy’s ongoing commitment to safety on Treasure Island.

The state’s environmental management team has had a lot of turnover, Sullivan said, “and some of the history gets lost with personnel.”

The new historical report has a silver lining, Sullivan added: It more concretely identifies areas of the island not affected by radiation, allowing some parcels to be transferred to San Francisco more swiftly.

State public health officials declined to comment on whether the Navy’s new report allays their concerns, saying they would respond within 30 days through official comments on the current draft version.

Officials with another state regulatory agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said there is no health risk.

“If it were a public health issue, the (toxics control department) would have been very aggressive in taking steps to address it,” said Denise Tsuji, chief of the unit monitoring the Treasure Island cleanup. “The Navy is removing it, managing it and taking it to an appropriate disposal facility.”

State toxic substances cleanup specialist Ryan Miya said that every time the Navy has detected unexpected radiation, Navy cleanup contractors have reassessed the overall operation, in some cases halting work to test for radiation.

“They’ve stopped work, and modifications to the work practices have been made at that time to help ensure public safety,” Miya said.

Cleanup based on erroneous report

Contractors hired by the Navy to rid the island of its toxic past relied on an inaccurate 2006 assessment, according to a series of memos, notices of violations and emails from the California Department of Public Health.

The report stated that nuclear activity was limited mostly to 1940s-era instruction in radioactive warfare conducted in classroom facilities and on a mocked-up ship – the USS Pandemonium – where sailors also were trained in cleaning up radioactive contamination.

The fake ship was doused with low-level radioactive material, which was washed off by sailors. Radiation in the stored wastewater dissipated within a few weeks, the Navy had reported. A classroom spill triggered a Navy cleanup in 1950, with sailors dumping 200 barrels of contaminated material off the coast, the 2006 report said.

The Navy gave a clean bill of health to the sites of the ship, classroom and some other Treasure Island locations in the 2006 report, titled “Final Treasure Island Naval Station Historical Radiological Assessment.” That year, the Navy said 170 acres of the island were suitable to transfer to San Francisco for development, pending state health officials’ approval.

But soon after, workers with private environmental contractors hired by the Navy repeatedly uncovered radioactivity in areas that were supposed to be clean. One civilian cleanup worker was ordered off the job with pay after being exposed to the maximum radiation dosage allowed under Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines, Sullivan, the Navy environmental cleanup coordinator, acknowledged.

Then, in 2009, new radiation findings led the Navy to halt operations and reassess the contractor’s work plan, according to minutes of a citizens advisory committee overseeing the cleanup.

State health officials started to worry that the Navy had not gone far enough, recommending in strongly worded memos that it scrap the 2006 report and begin its radiological assessment anew.

For one, the Navy had failed to fully detail what had happened to the remains of the USS Pandemonium, used to train sailors in “Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare,” according to a July 2011 health department review. The Navy contractor recently dumped debris from the two training sites into an undisclosed landfill, the report alleged, then declared the training site clean without testing for radiation.

“The Navy has not responded to requests for the location of the landfill,” the review added.

As the Navy attempted to turn over property for development, health officials applied the brakes.

In October 2010, Larry Morgan, an environmental management specialist with the state Department of Public Health, told the Department of Toxic Substances Control that “the finding of relatively high level radioactive sources … raise(s) additional unanswered questions” about assumptions related to various locations on the island. Morgan recommended a new “conceptual model” that assumed radioactive contamination could be more extensive than previously believed.

Six months later, an environmental cleanup manager for the public health department, Stephen Woods, wrote that “the large volume of radiological contaminated material, high number of radioactive commodities, (individual items or sources,) and high levels of radioactive contamination … have raised concerns with CDPH regarding the nature and extent of the radiological contamination present at Treasure Island.”

The growing file of radiation discoveries, Woods said, undermined the Navy’s continued use of the 2006 report as a basis for claims that some parcels were clear of radiation and ready for housing development.

Retired San Francisco attorney Tony Gantner, an activist who opposes the planned Treasure Island development, wrote a letter to Mayor Lee last November citing the state’s concerns.

In it, Gantner called the 2006 report “a radiological lie.”

Violation notice leads to new report

Criticism from state public health officials took a legal turn in a June 2011 missive from the department’s radiological health enforcement specialist, Kent Prendergast.

He issued a notice of violation against the Navy’s chief cleanup contractor, Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., for repeatedly digging, piling, spreading and transporting dirt from sites contaminated with toxic chemicals. Shaw had not tested that material for radioactivity, Prendergast wrote, potentially spreading radiation beyond its original location.

The Navy responded with its own memo, saying: “The Navy does not concur that the entire base is radiologically impacted.”

Following the violation notice, Shaw obtained the proper licenses for handling radioactive material and continued with the cleanup, according to the Navy and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The Navy subsequently agreed to produce the new historical analysis, based on recent test results and deeper research, internal memos show. However, the Navy argued that the 2006 report remained a valid historical record.

Using photographs and other archival material, civilian researchers under a Navy contract discovered that Treasure Island was a major Pacific center for ship repair and salvage during and after World War II. It included a repair shop for gun sights, which sometimes contained glowing markers made of radioactive elements. Researchers found indications that ships that berthed there could have been contaminated with radiation from Pacific nuclear bomb tests.

Radiation exposure was once such a concern on Treasure Island, the researchers found, that the former Navy base had a radiological “counting room” where specialists tested Navy personnel and equipment for contamination.

John Hill, a civilian in charge of the island’s base closure for the Navy, said the new report will be used as a guide for further testing at some sites, such as where workers once cleaned, repaired and salvaged ships. Areas given a clean bill of health will be the first prepared for turnover to the city.

However, Woods, the state Department of Public Health’s environmental cleanup manager, in May accused the Navy of rushing its evaluation of Treasure Island’s radioactive past and present. Even as it was producing the report dedicated to greater disclosure of the radioactive history of Treasure Island, the Navy was not being open with state regulators, Woods wrote in a memo to the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The Navy had delayed releasing sample data to state health inspectors and failed to test for radioactive soil at sites where it had found toxic chemical waste, Woods’ memo said.

As of May, contractors had transported 1,000 truckloads of radioactive waste off Treasure Island with more still in the ground, wrote Woods, adding that this volume defied assertions that Treasure Island had a negligible history of radioactive material.

“That amount of radium found to date,” he wrote, “cannot be explained by gauges, deck markers and decontamination activities.”


This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.