Arieann Harrison, founder of the Marie Harrison Foundation, leads a community effort in Bayview-Hunters Point to protect the neighborhood from toxic contamination due to sea level rise. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
This story is part of KQED’s series, “Sacrifice Zones: Bay Area Shoreline Communities Reimagining Their Homes in the Face of the Climate Emergency.” The project looks at communities of color facing the worst of rising seas and fighting to thrive. Read more of KQED’s reparations coverage.
Arieann Harrison accepted her calling at her mother’s funeral, sitting in St. John Missionary Baptist Church in the San Francisco shoreline community of Bayview-Hunters Point.
“You find out a lot about yourself at a funeral,” said Harrison. Her mother, Marie Harrison, passed away in 2019 at 71 from lung disease. Harrison says her mom believed the illness was tied to pollution from a nearby shipyard, where she once worked and lived close to.
At St. John’s, person after person shared reasons why they valued Harrison’s mother.
She organized, marched and protested for decades, pushing for a shipyard cleanup — even chaining herself to the fence outside the site. Marie Harrison famously said to neighbors, officials and anyone who would listen, “We’ll never surrender.”
Harrison realized it was time to stand on her mother’s shoulders, taking on her legacy of advocacy.
The shipyard is now a Superfund site, one of the country’s most polluted places. The 866-acre area is a jigsaw slab of concrete docking bays and abandoned buildings jutting out of the southeast shoreline of San Francisco. The site butts up against the community of Bayview-Hunters Point, where more than 35,000 people live.
Marie Harrison fought for a cleanup. Her daughter’s struggle is arguably more difficult, as climate change and sea level rise threaten to flood the area. Scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm about rising bay water pushing freshwater up from belowground, uncorking chemicals from the shipyard before spilling into homes and businesses.
“We’re just one natural disaster away from something we can never come back from,” said Harrison, who lives in the neighborhood and works helping military veterans and unhoused people find housing and recovery programs in San Francisco. “This is not a game.”
Three years after her mother’s death, Harrison, who is in her mid-50s, is pressing officials for the strongest possible cleanup of the site to ensure the community isn’t exposed to toxic waste. She’s helping lead an effort to document how living near the Superfund site may have exposed residents — many of whom are people of color — to toxics, by testing for contaminants in their bodies.
“Climate justice is a real thing. Sea level rise is real,” she said. “This is the opportunity to stand up and do the right thing by the people.”
Her advocacy also now includes a call for reparations for descendants of enslaved people, saying the tendrils of slavery are still very alive today in this historically Black neighborhood. Racist housing policies siloed Black and brown people in this part of San Francisco, where she says they were exposed to contaminants from the Superfund site; repair is needed.
‘The worst contaminants you can imagine’
Bayview-Hunters Point Hazardous Sites and 2100 Sea Level Rise
Click the arrow to view the map legend. Use your mouse to move the map. Use the + and – signs to zoom in and out. Click on the dots to view details. Click on the magnifying glass to search for a specific address. Areas marked by circles show the impact of rising seas and groundwater together, while squares show groundwater impacts only. Sources: Climate Central, UCLA, UC Berkeley, USGS.
Researchers identified as many as 900 power plants, cleanup sites, refineries and other places in California that could experience flooding from sea level rise or groundwater spreading into neighborhoods — sometimes both.
The Hunters Point Superfund site is one of those hazardous sites. In the middle of the last century, the U.S. Navy decontaminated ships after atomic bomb tests and established the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the shipyard. This process contaminated the soil with radionuclides, heavy metals and petroleum fuels, among other toxic compounds.
Bay Area scientists say that before rising tides flood aboveground, bay waters will press inward under the surface of the land, pushing up the groundwater, spreading buried contamination.
“The Hunters Point Superfund site is expected to experience monthly flooding by the end of the century,” said UCLA’s Lara Cushing, who created the mapping project with UC Berkeley’s Rachel Morello-Frosch.
But Morello-Frosch says any cleanup that caps toxic contamination likely won’t be good enough as the bay presses groundwater upward.
“If you start having groundwater encroachment, those caps of legacy sites can be breached,” she noted. “So it can come up, and it can move to different areas.”
Cole Burchiel, a field investigator for the environmental watchdog group San Francisco Baykeeper, is worried that rising groundwater levels will harm human and aquatic life.
“We’re dealing with some of the worst contaminants you can imagine — lead, arsenic, radioactive isotopes,” he said. “They will infiltrate existing infrastructure. We’re talking sewer lines, water supply lines — and that has a direct impact on people’s homes.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office denied multiple requests for an interview for this story. The city said in an emailed statement that it’s conducting a study with Bay Area climate scientists on how sea level rise will affect groundwater, and they’re seeking funding to study how sea level rise could affect known contaminated sites.
A May report released by the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury reprimands city and Navy officials, saying they have not accounted for the serious risk that rising groundwater could have here.
“Aside from some glimmers of awareness at regulatory agencies, groundwater rise has not yet been meaningfully considered in the cleanup at the Hunters Point Shipyard,” the grand jury wrote.
San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes Bayview-Hunters Point, requested a hearing on the jury report. But his office declined repeated requests for an interview. In an emailed statement, he said he is aware of the longstanding issue of radioactive contamination and is working with all the agencies involved in the cleanup.
But he acknowledged that “the effect of sea level rise and groundwater rise has not been studied” for the Hunters Point Superfund site.
Harrison organized a June rally in front of City Hall to highlight the findings. Wearing a bright purple shirt with “CAN WE LIVE” printed on the front and speaking into a megaphone, she said the city needs to prepare Bayview-Hunters Point for the effects of sea level rise.
“I want to invite our mayor, who we love, to show us that she loves us back,” she said.
She said reparations are necessary to create an equitable future for Bayview-Hunters Point and its Black and brown residents who will be disproportionately harmed by climate change.
Bayview-Hunters Point residents regularly attend the meetings of San Francisco’s advisory committee to express their concerns. Lonnie Mason said at a January session that the city is not giving enough attention to the historically Black area of San Francisco. He was born and raised in the neighborhood.
“Our health risks within the community are very deep,” he said. “It goes way back. We know what time it is when it comes to Hunters Point.”
“We have all the utilities here,” she said, noting the neighborhood is home to Recology; the city’s sewage treatment plant; and other waste facilities. “We still have the garbage dump here. Why is it all in our area? Because they don’t value us.”
UC Berkeley professor Maya Carrasquillo says it’s not unusual for Black people to feel left out of plans to improve residents’ lives, even if they are represented by Black city officials. Carrasquillo, who identifies racially as a Black American and ethnically as an Afro-Latina, is a civil and environmental engineering professor focused on environmental justice.
She says Black people in power would argue they advocate for all Black residents, but decisions made by those in control often center communities of affluence.
“There is still a distinct difference of how we value Black and brown lives across class barriers,” she said. “When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it is all Black lives.”
Carrasquillo says Bayview-Hunters Point deserves the same kind of investment that wealthy neighborhoods of San Francisco receive. If that doesn’t happen, lower-income people of color will suffer disproportionately as the world warms and the bay rises. She says San Francisco and other cities should invite the people who will be the most harmed by rising tides to decide their own future by including them in every aspect of climate adaptation plans. That is an act of reparation.
“What’s actually at stake here are people’s lives,” she added. “We need to make sure that people are not at the risk of death, if we really say that their lives matter.”
‘That set my hair on fire’
To seize the attention of city leaders, residents are documenting their health conditions.
A map of Bayview-Hunters Point lies on the wood desk in Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai’s office. It’s filled with red, blue, black, yellow and white pushpins — they look like ants piled up on a piece of food. Each pin represents a person whom she tested and found to have high levels of a toxic chemical in their body at that time.
“[Toxic chemicals] have no role in the human body, and there is no justification for any of them,” she said.
In 2019, she began testing residents who volunteered to have their urine examined for toxic contaminants. The 70-year-old physician is the founder and medical director of the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation.
She’s now tested and retested more than 100 residents for toxic elements like lead, mercury and arsenic, and for elevated levels of natural elements that people need, like iron and zinc. Porter Sumchai said she recently tested a woman in her 40s and found uranium at dangerously high levels.
“That set my hair on fire,” she said. “I had never seen anything like that.”
Harrison was tested in 2021. Porter Sumchai found cadmium, copper, manganese and other contaminants in her body at levels she described as “very dangerous.” The contaminants could cause damage to the brain, heart, kidney, liver and lungs.
“I am retaining fluid, have muscle tightness, tingling in my feet and my hair is falling out of my head like a cancer patient,” she said, pointing to the test results on her office computer. “It doesn’t look like it because my wig is really cute.”
On that day she wore long, black braids.
Officials with the San Francisco Department of Public Health told KQED in an emailed statement that the agency is “committed to protecting and promoting the health of those in the Bayview-Hunters Point” neighborhood, but wouldn’t comment directly on Porter Sumchai’s testing, saying the agency did not have a “subject matter expert.” They deferred comment to state health officials.
The California Department of Public Health told KQED in an email that it is “aware” of the community testing, but “has not been directly provided any test results from those samples.”
The city conducted a community health survey in 2006 that found “cancer is a major cause of years of life lost in Bayview Hunters Point,” and “African-American women and men have the highest mortality rates of any other racial/ethnic group for several major cancers.” But the city did not look at whether buried toxic contamination at the shipyard contributed to any health problems.
Dr. Timur Durrani, a UCSF physician who is not involved with Porter Sumchai’s effort, said the tests are cause for a wider-scale survey.
“What it sounds like is the community wants to be heard,” he said.
Porter Sumchai submits her data on cancers and toxic contamination to the California Cancer Registry. She is compiling her own — the Hunters Point Community Toxic Registry — and hopes to gather enough evidence documenting a relationship between illness and toxic exposure to use in a structured legal settlement.
“The more evidence we collect, the more pins we place in this map,” she said. “I do think, ultimately, there is going to be a recovery for this community. It’s just in the stars.”
But any recovery takes hard work. Porter Sumchai and Harrison’s work is practical, methodical and deliberate. Climate change adds extreme urgency to their effort.
At the June protest on the steps of City Hall, Harrison invited Porter Sumchai to speak on her findings. Rallying the crowd, she called her “a woman who has been fighting since Day One. I like to call her my second mother.”
“People in Bayview-Hunters Point are being treated like canaries in the coal mine for an impending catastrophe that will impact the entire city,” Porter Sumchai said.
Bayview-Hunters Point residents are facing a life-or-death crisis, she said, but she promised to fight, even if city leaders don’t act.
Then she quoted Marie Harrison.
“We’ll never surrender,” she said.
KQED’s Annelise Finney contributed reporting to this story.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.