On Treasure Island, a rectilinear manmade speck of land and former naval base in the San Francisco Bay, there is a spot the Navy calls “USS Pandemonium Site I,” occupied by low-slung housing units rented out as apartments. Potential contaminants: Radium-226 and cesium-137. “Likelihood of contamination,” according to the Navy, was “unlikely.”
However, in April 2011, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) did some tests along the streets around the USS Pandemonium site and found 93 spots where radiation levels weren’t 10% or 20% or 50% above the normal exposure level, but up to 2.7 times the normal exposure level. In one area, radiation was 4,380% above the annual dose limit and was considered “unsafe.”
The limit assumes exposure of 24 hours per day, for one year. So walking by is not a problem. But people live there! A high-rise development is planned next to it, pushing the island’s population from 2,800 to 20,000 residents. And now new evidence has emerged of the Navy’s still ongoing campaign of obfuscation. They just don’t want us to know! And apparently, they don’t want to know themselves!
For decades, the US Government has buried its nuclear sins on Treasure Island under layers of institutional ignorance. Thanks to The Bay Citizen, which obtained a Navy draft report dated August 6, 2012, we now know that the island was “ground zero” for “repairing, scrapping, recycling, and incinerating material” from ships that had been exposed to nuclear explosions in the Pacific during the early phases of the Cold War and had been contaminated up to the antennas with radiation. And there was the USS Pandemonium, the mockup of a ship doused with radioactive materials to train sailors in cleaning contaminated ships. For surreal details and the games the US Government was playing, read….. Nuclear Radiation On San Francisco’s Treasure Island: We Don’t Need To Know, Apparently.
Treasure Island as seen from our windows two-and-a-half miles away: a flat, low-lying, non-descript piece of real estate. Beyond the haze: Berkley and Oakland.
The latest revelations by The Bay Citizen are based on emails that show that regulators of the Department of Public Health have been hounding the Navy for information since 2010 when cleanup crews kept running into radiation that wasn’t supposed to be there or that the Navy said it had already cleaned up—laying bare its refusal not only to acknowledge existing radiation but also to properly inspect the whole island. When confronted with evidence, the Navy didn’t want to receive it in writing to keep it out of the official record. And it showed a no-holds-barred effort to shop for the most lenient regulator.
Ultimate purpose: shuffle the contaminated island off to the city of San Francisco, which had agreed to buy it for $105 million, so that the city would have to clean it up. But the deal required a nod from the CDPH—which kept running into more radiation every time it blinked (interactive map).
To get it off its back, the Navy contended that the CDPH didn’t have the authority to regulate the cleanup of radioactive sites. When that didn’t work, it tried to gag the CDPH. On May 15, Navy cleanup manager David Clark told the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) in an email that officials from the CDPH should express their “concerns only verbally,” not in writing; the Navy wanted to avoid “another letter” to prevent written documents from entering the case.
Navy environmental coordinator James Sullivan was even clearer: “If you receive the memo, don’t send it to us,” he emailed to an official at the DTSC. Instead, under a pretext, send it back to the CDPH “for revisions” to prevent memos that the DTSC had “not endorsed” from reaching the Navy. The reason: The DTSC “sees its role as helping move properties off the Navy’s books,” explains Saul Bloom, Executive Director of Arc Ecology, while the CDPH “sees its role as protecting public health.”
But the Navy’s strategy didn’t work. Larry Morgan, senior physicist at the CDPH, sent memos anyway, lashing out against the Navy’s inadequate cleanup methods and its obfuscation. He pointed out that there had been several high-radiation shipments and “about a thousand” intermodal containers of “radium waste” hauled off the island. He lamented that the Navy’s explanations for the radioactive waste had been inadequate, that it tested 1,500 soil samples for chemical waste, but not for radioactivity. He exhorted the Navy to expand its testing for radioactivity, and to include cesium-137, a byproduct in nuclear blasts. And thus, his concerns became part of the official record.
And still, DTSC officials, ever eager to help the Navy unload its contaminated properties, claimed in a conference call that Treasure Island was “safe for human habitation.”