Treasure Island radiation discovery casts doubt on expansion plans

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Treasure Island radiation discovery casts doubt on expansion plans

San Francisco Treasure Island

When one thinks of Treasure Island, they’d imagine swashbuckling pirates awash in a discovery of gold.  But the Treasure Island off San Francisco Bay, named after Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, has nothing but “junk” buried in its soil…

The area is contaminated by radioative material left by the U.S. navy.

Internal documents and correspondence from the navy and public health officials reveal that the contamination is more widespread than previously thought.  The reports uncover a legacy of ships exposed to atomic blasts and radiation training during the cold war.

The navy reportedly bungled clean-up efforts — leaving topsoil with 400 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s human exposure limits.

The island is currently inhabited by nearly 3,000 residents. The revelations have infuriated them and tainted plans to build high-rise apartments for 20,000 more people next year.

The Bay Citizen is a nonprofit news organization that covers the bay area. The group was the first to disclose the sensitive documents to the public. Stephen Woods, an environmental clean-up manager for the public health department, wrote this in a 2011 email to the Bay Citizen: “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 … regarding the nature and extent of the radiological contamination present at Treasure Island”.

Reports say the navy continued to use a 2006 report as a credible basis for claims that some parts of Treasure Island were clear of radiation and ready for housing development. But Woods says the growing file of radiation discoveries has undermined the navy’s initial claims. Meanwhile, the navy says California’s public health officials are wrong and that there is no health risk.

Treasure Island was originally created in 1937. It was born out of a landfill, and named in honour of Louis Stevenson’s book because he lived in San Francisco. It hosted the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition before being handed over to the navy.

The island was used as a hub to repair and salvage vessels, which were exposed to atomic blasts during the 1940s and 50s. Cannon sights reportedly contained radioactive glow-in-the-dark material. A training ship, the USS Pandemonium, was intentionally doused in radiation so sailors could practise scrubbing it. The navy had a radiological “counting room” to test personnel and equipment for contamination.

In 1993, the navy agreed to hand the island back to the city for $105M. It was a deal which required inspection and approval from state health officials.

Naval operations ended there in 1997. In 2006, a navy report gave a clean bill of health to affected sites. The report stated 170 acres were suitable to transfer to San Francisco. This paved the way for ambitious plans to create a new neighbourhood.

But in recent reports and emails, state health officials faulted the navy’s 2006 report. They noted that contractors removed 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, some with radiation levels 400 times the EPA’s human exposure limits. Island residents are required to grow plants in above-ground pots to avoid soil-borne chemicals.

However, the Department of Toxic Substances Control sides with the navy. It says there is no risk to health, and that concerns were exaggerated and inconsistent with the navy’s commitment to safety.

Photo by Jitze Couperus

Madison is a journalist/media consultant currently working in Toronto.