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Toxic Acres 

The fill below Treasure Island is filled with dangerous toxins left by the Navy

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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The intrusions aren't restricted to nighttime. On a recent visit, two teenagers could be seen skateboarding in a cordoned-off zone along the northwestern waterfront, not far from where there was a large hole in the fence. Residents say adults have been known to dig up plants in the off-limits zones for transplanting in their yards. "I doubt that the fences are any more of a barrier to contaminants than they are to people," says Emily Rapaport.

As for Halyburton Court, Navy officials say that none of the units were made available for lease before the contamination was discovered there. But that doesn't speak to the potential exposure of countless military families who resided in Halyburton Court and other now-off-limits units where high levels of contaminants have been found, from the 1960s until the base closed in 1997.

Asked about them, Sullivan, the environmental coordinator, says that there are no records available indicating who lived in what units. "We no longer have any records at the base or anywhere else that would tell us that," he says.

In contrast to Halyburton and other ex-housing quarters where environmental conditions are suspect, no visible evidence remains of another neighborhood legacy — the radiological training school that existed there from 1957 to 1969. The facility occupied several acres in the neighborhood's southwest corner, facing the San Francisco shoreline. The spot is now home to dozens of families living on Westside Drive and at the south end of heavily built-out Gateway Avenue.

The Navy began radiological warfare instruction on Treasure Island in 1946, at about the same time the U.S. military began conducting landmark nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The training went "live" in 1957 with the "commissioning" of the USS Pandemonium, a full-scale, above-the-waterline mockup of a 173-foot-long patrol craft. Built from salvage, the fake ship was plopped on the island for a singular purpose: to train sailors how to deal with radioactive contamination.

During the last several years the mock-up was in use, the exercises conducted there used short-lived radioactive isotopes with half-lives of only a few weeks. Records show that the training drills consisted of spreading radioactive material over the ship's surface and having sailors spray and scrub it down until it was decontaminated. Contaminated wastewater that didn't seep into the ground was funneled into huge above-ground tanks and stored until the water was no longer considered harmful, and then dumped into the bay through a drain pipe.

But during the Pandemonium's early years, until 1963, highly radioactive cesium-137 was routinely placed aboard the vessel in sealed containers in at least 11 locations, Navy documents show. Using cables from a central position, an instructor would withdraw one or more of the cesium sources from shielded wells, enabling students with monitoring equipment to locate "radioactivity" during training exercises.

In 1970, the ship was hauled to the northeast corner of the island away from the present-day housing tract, and the area was cleared to build more houses for base personnel. "I doubt that anybody ever even knew what had been there; I don't remember anyone in our family ever mentioning it," says Brett MacLean, 38, a self-described Navy brat who spent part of his teen years on Westside Drive during the 1970s.

Similarly, none of several persons interviewed for this story currently living on the site says they were aware that their home is on the location of a former decontamination facility. (It is not mentioned as part of the disclosures provided by the John Stewart Co.)

The Navy has given the site more or less a clean bill of health. But like other aspects of the lengthy and ongoing remediation effort at the former base, its assurances depends more on archival evidence than exhaustive field testing. In 2001, the Navy conducted radiological monitoring at 581 test trenches scattered across Area 12. But it has thus far resisted trenching within four identified former solid waste disposal areas, one of which cuts through the middle of the former decontamination site.

In a report released in February, the Navy variously declared that there is "no evidence" and "no documentation" to suggest that radiological materials were disposed of in the former solid waste sites. As for the use of cesium-137 at the training facility, the Navy's long-awaited radiological assessment contends that "throughout the history of the USS Pandemonium, no mention was ever made to indicate a problem" with the use of cesium. Acknowledging the paucity of records related to a former training site that went out of existence more than three decades ago, the report allowed as how the cesium's seals "were required to be leak-checked every six months."

The same report yields new information about the Navy's handling of a radium spill in another area of the base in January 1950, in which at least five students and other personnel were exposed. In that incident, a capsule containing about 40 milligrams of the highly radioactive material was inadvertently dropped in a laboratory at Building No. 233, a long-vacant, two-story wooden structure near the southeast corner of the island. It is deemed to have been the most serious radiological breach at the former base for which there is a record.

In a summary of the incident, the Navy referred to surfaces inside the building that couldn't be decontaminated as part of the cleanup operation. Last year, Dale Smith, the restoration advisory panel member, sought to know what became of the materials. The reply: that more than 200 barrels of radioactive waste generated from the spill was stored aboard the USS Independence at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard and later — the report does not say when — weighted with concrete and "sunk at sea."

After more than half a century, and despite Building No. 233's having been cleared for reuse within a year, the decrepit structure across the street from a little league ball field has recently come under renewed scrutiny as part of the Navy's overall cleanup of the island in preparation for its presumed transfer to the city of San Francisco. Barely a month ago, after years of open access, the Navy erected a fence around it.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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