Residents of San Francisco's Treasure Island believe nuclear contamination has made them sick for years. The site is getting 8,000 new homes.

Treasure Island

  • Current and former residents of San Francisco's Treasure Island have attributed some health issues they and others experienced - including chronic coughs and cancer - to radiation exposure.
  • The island is a former Naval site that once hosted nuclear-training exercises. But there no scientific evidence to prove a link between that legacy and residents' current health problems.
  • The Navy has been remediating the land since 2007. During that time, it discovered nearly 1,300 radioactive objects.
  • One of the contractors hired to perform the cleanup, Tetra Tech, previously admitted to falsifying soil tests at another location in San Francisco.
  • A developer plans to build 8,000 residential units on Treasure Island.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The view from Treasure Island is magical. In the morning, the sun crests behind the towers of downtown San Francisco, illuminating the city's skyline. At night, the buildings' lights shine against a dark sky next to the glistening Bay Bridge.

Liz Washington used to live on the island, a 400-acre artificial land mass in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.Advertisement

People approached her all the time with envy during those years, she told Business Insider, saying things like, "It must be wonderful living on Treasure Island," and "Oh, the city views!"

"They know nothing, nothing, nothing," Washington said.

For years, Treasure Island residents have complained that the land has made them sick. Some people who live there attribute the health issues of current and former residents, including chronic coughs and cancer, to radioactive material left behind from Naval training exercises conducted from 1942 to 1997.
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Washington said she knows neighbors who've developed lung and thyroid cancer. She herself has experienced respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.

"We all have a cough that we call the Treasure Island cough," Washington said. Hers sounds dry; she is constantly clearing her throat. Despite these reports, Treasure Island is being primed for a $6 billion development project consisting of 8,000 new residential units. Advertisement

The Navy used Treasure Island as a nuclear-training site

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To build Treasure Island, the US Army Corps of Engineers dredged sand and covered the loam with soil, trees, and flowers. The "Magic Isle" opened to the public in 1939, then became a Naval base as the US entered World War II. The Navy would go on to occupy the land for more than five decades.

During that time, it carried out routine training exercises using dangerous radioactive isotopes.Advertisement

In 1946, after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on 95 target ships in the Marshall Islands as part of a test known as Operation Crossroads, the contaminated ships were sent to San Francisco. Most went to a top-secret nuclear-testing facility at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, but one ship, the USS Independence, made its way to Treasure Island. It was used as a training tool to prepare sailors for nuclear war.

Following World War II, the Navy used Treasure Island to conduct training academies in which radiation-safety officers were asked to handle isotopes like radium-226 and cesium-137.

Radium-226 has a half-life of about 1,600 years, meaning it takes 1,600 years to reduce its concentration by half. Exposure to high levels of the isotope over an extended period of time has been linked to bone cancer. Cesium-137 has a much shorter half-life - about 30 years - but high levels of exposure to the isotope can lead to burns, acute radiation sickness, and cancer.Advertisement

In 1950, radium spilled in a Navy classroom following a laboratory exercise. It was left to spread throughout the building, according to a Navy report. Personnel who were exposed to the spill were decontaminated with hand scrubbers and abrasive soap, but by then many of them had carried contamination on their clothing and shoes into their homes and cars.

Six years later, the Navy built a mockup ship outfitted with 11 pieces of cesium-137 so that officers could practice detecting levels of gamma radiation. Navy officers also sprayed the vessel with radioactive isotopes like bromine-82, bromine-80, potassium-42, and sodium-24. As the officers scrubbed the ship clean, the run-off seeped into nearby soil.

Items contaminated with radium-226 and cesium-137 were also stored in facilities, vaults, and classrooms on the island until the 1990s.Advertisement

Today, the Navy says "all accessible areas of Treasure Island are safe to the public and confirmed to have no radiation above naturally occurring background levels."

But residents aren't convinced.

'Don't let your kids play in the dirt'

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In 2000, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) warned all Treasure Island residents to "avoid contact with the soil in your backyard" and "take precautionary measures such as wiping feet, changing shoes, and hosing down the patio area, to avoid tracking soil from your backyard indoors."Advertisement

The warning came after California regulators received the results of a Navy-run soil analysis, according to a Reuters investigation published in January 2019. The analysis found "chemicals of concern" in some yards. Reuters also reported that residents had complained to the state for years about a host of health problems, including cancer, asthma, and children's hair loss.

Washington, who moved to Treasure Island about two decades ago, said she wasn't aware of the island's history when she arrived. When she first spoke with Business Insider a year ago, remediation efforts were taking place about a block and a half from her home there. The Navy also remediated soil just down the street from her property in the past, she said.

The Navy "didn't notify people that there was radiation and chemicals on the island," she said. The Navy has maintained, however, that it disclosed the contamination through a landlord. Advertisement

"The only thing I was told was, 'Don't let your kids play in the dirt," Washington said, referring to the warning from the DTSC.

But that was easier said than done, she added.

"If you move somewhere and there's a lot of soil, of course you're going to want to plant some plants," Washington said. "You have kids. You have pets. Of course they're going to dig in the dirt." Advertisement

Kathryn Buckner, who lived on Treasure Island from 2005 to 2016, told Business Insider that her three children also used to play in the dirt outside her home. As the daughter of a military family, she said, she assumed the Navy would have informed her if the soil was harmful.

"I grew up proud of my country. Trained to believe everything, trained to trust authority," she said.

Buckner said she has been diagnosed with melanoma and had a tumor removed from her left arm in 2015.Advertisement

The 'radiated rock'

Trelease Miller, who has been a resident of Treasure Island for almost 12 years, said she received a notice telling her not to dig in the soil about a year after she moved in. By that time, she had already planted grass in her backyard.

Miller believes that there's a link between her health problems and contamination on the land. Lately, she said, her ankles have started swelling to the size of her calves and she has found it impossible to lift her right arm. She's starting to wonder whether these symptoms could be related to joint damage from radiation. Research from Wake Forest University suggests that radiation exposure can lead to the degradation of joint cartilage.Advertisement

Miller also uses a nebulizer and sees a breathing specialist every other week. Radiation is not scientifically linked to asthma, but the Navy's cleanup efforts on the island have also exhumed dioxins, a pollutant that can exacerbate asthma and bronchitis.

"I've never had asthma a day in my life - never, ever until I moved out here," she told Business Insider.

Buckner said she, too, has a nebulizer and a "Treasure Island cough." Advertisement

"I didn't have any of this stuff before," she added. "It changed who I was for sure. That person, that citizen, that mom is gone."

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Miller and Buckner both said their children have struggled with health issues as well.Advertisement

Miller's daughter, Brianna, grew up playing in the sandbox near their home, Miller said. When Brianna was around 5, her hair started falling out, leaving bald patches on her scalp. She also developed bubbly blisters on her legs, Miller added.

Buckner said her youngest daughter, who is now 20 years old, started experiencing swollen knees, nosebleeds, and bleeding gums as early as age 6. Around the same time, she began losing her hair and developed rashes on her face that Buckner said "almost looked like burns."

Both women recalled taking their daughters back and forth to doctors.Advertisement

Buckner said one doctor said her daughter's problems were genetic, but the symptoms don't run in the family. About fix or six years ago, Buckner said, another doctor attributed the symptoms to Treasure Island's contamination and told her to leave. Buckner now lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Miller said her daughter's doctor had a hard time determining the cause of Brianna's symptoms. During one visit, Miller mentioned that she lived on Treasure Island. "The way that [the doctor's] tone changed - it made it seem like he'd heard that before," Miller said.Advertisement

Still, the doctor assured her that Brianna's health problems weren't related to the island. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence that proves the land has been making residents sick. The Cancer Prevention Institute of California counted 48 total cancer diagnoses on the island from 2002 to 2011, but said that did not constitute "evidence of significantly elevated incidence rates of all cancers among the residents."

Miller sought a second opinion, though, and that doctor attributed the symptoms to toxins in the soil, she said.

Miller now has a nickname for Treasure Island: the radiated rock.Advertisement

'Radiologically controlled area'

Treasure Island remediation map

Around 1,800 people currently live in low-income housing on Treasure Island. Others live in market-rate rental properties, while the rest are formerly homeless residents living in units turned over from military families.

After years of investigation into the extent of radiation on the island, the Navy released a report in 2006 that identified potential contamination sites. The report determined that Site 12, the official name for Treasure Island's residential community, is "radiologically impacted," meaning radioactive materials were likely used, stored, or disposed of there. Advertisement

Shortly after, the Navy began remediating the land. That's when locals started seeing signs with phrases like "radiologically controlled area" and workers in hazmat suits.

Miller said remediation workers started showing up at her home unannounced several years ago, pointing handheld geiger counters (which detect radiation) at the ground and recording the results.

"It kind of reminded me of Ghostbusters," she said. Advertisement

Miller and her two daughters were told to evacuate their home in 2017.

"They gave us 90 days to move and then all of a sudden that 90 days dropped to like 16 days and we were out of there," she said.
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A year later, the Navy demolished the property where Miller had lived, along with the neighboring units, after discovering "soil with chemical contamination" underneath. According to a 2018 Navy report, multiple buildings have been demolished at Site 12.

Miller now lives within walking distance of that former rental.

The Navy discovered nearly 1,300 radioactive items on Treasure Island

From 2007 through 2018, Navy contractors detected 1,280 radioactive objects on Treasure Island. Advertisement

At one unoccupied structure, a technician found "elevated levels" of radiation beneath a slab of concrete, according to reporting by NBC Bay Area in 2013. Radiation levels in that spot were 1 million times higher than what the EPA allows for occupants.

"During housing construction, debris from the SWDAs [solid waste disposal areas] was mixed with clean soil and dispersed across the housing area," a 2014 Navy report found. But it said "the housing structures are not impacted."

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However, in September, the Navy discovered what it called a low-level radiological object in the soil of an occupied housing unit, according to reporting by the San Francisco Bay View. The Navy said the object had "radiation above the background range" but added that it did not present a health risk.

Still, some residents worry about their proximity to sites that are fenced off because of contamination.

"If there's radioactive waste on one side of the fence, why wouldn't there be radioactive waste on the other?" Bradley Angel, the executive director of the watchdog group Greenaction, told Business Insider.Advertisement

He added: "I've worked in the field of pollution in communities for over three decades and I've seen a lot of disaster situations. This is right up there in terms of a really bad situation that is a dire health and environmental threat."

Tahirih Linz, the Navy's environmental coordinator for Treasure Island, told Business Insider that "there was no risk to human health and safety in residential areas from subsurface objects discovered through the environmental cleanup program" and added that the island is "safe for residents, employees, and visitors."

Parallels between Hunters Point and Treasure Island

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The first phase of the proposed $6 billion Treasure Island development project is expected to include around 2,100 residential units, up to 500 hotel rooms, and 90 acres of parks. The final project, which is expected to be complete in 10 to 15 years, will include new roads, 140,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, and 100,000 square feet of office space.

The development will also have around 2,000 units of affordable housing. (In San Francisco, that means homes are set aside for households earning 50% or less of the city's median income.)

A group called Treasure Island Community Development (TICD) is spearheading the project - it's a joint venture between the development company Lennar and real-estate investment firms Stockbridge Capital and Wilson-Meany.Advertisement

A similar project, an $8 billion live-work community with 12,000 homes built at Hunters Point in San Francisco, could offer a window into Treasure Island's future. Since the early 2000s, the Navy has overseen the remediation of irradiated soil at Hunters Point, costing more than $1 billion. The Navy transferred the land there to Lennar in 2004.

But former employees of Tetra Tech, the contractor hired by the Navy to perform cleanup at Hunters Point, admitted to falsifying soil tests. The Navy has said residents of Hunters Point are 100% safe and has agreed to retest all areas that were inspected by Tetra Tech.

But the scandal generated new concern among Treasure Island residents, since Navy remediation efforts there were in part planned based on 50 soil samples collected and analyzed by Tetra Tech.Advertisement

In video footage from the Labor Video Project, Robert McClain, a radiation-control technician who worked at both Treasure Island and Hunters Point, said corrupt soil sampling may have also taken place on Treasure Island in 2007 and 2008. McClain recalled outlining contaminated sites on Treasure Island in paint, but said that when he returned the next day, the soil had been moved and the radioactive objects discovered had "disappeared."

Tetra Tech did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

Bob Beck, the director of the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA), a nonprofit overseeing the economic development of the land, told Business Insider that "naval operations on Treasure Island were dramatically different than those at Hunters Point."Advertisement

Tetra Tech's field work on the island was limited, he added. He said he'd never heard of a "Treasure Island cough."

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A Navy report published in March said Tetra Tech's Treasure Island testing was "consistent and accurate" and that all cleanup areas had been "managed by other contractors before and after" the company was involved. A spokesperson for the TICD told Business Insider that it "has no incentive to develop land that is environmentally unsafe."Advertisement

Residents could be evicted to make way for new homes

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Washington said she has brought up her health concerns at local meetings hosted by the Navy and a community board. Navy officials "repeat the same thing over and over and over again," she said: that Treasure Island is safe.

Of the same Navy officials, Angel said: "They're not blind. They're not deaf. They're not dumb. They know what's going on, and they don't give a damn."Advertisement

Linz said the Navy plans to continue sharing information at these meetings and will allow for questions "as new discoveries are made." But according to Miller, interactions with the Navy are a "sore subject" among residents due to a perceived lack of transparency.

"It just feels like you're not only playing with my intelligence - you're actually playing with my life," she said.

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Buckner said she wishes she had a more complete understanding of the pollutants that could be making her sick.

"I want to get the answers," she said. "I can't even battle half the things that have happened to my kids or my family without accurate information. I can't help my own family - that's the most frustrating thing."

Washington said she also discussed her health concerns with the San Francisco Department of Health, but was told no other residents had raised any similar complaints.Advertisement

Angel thinks some residents who have become ill may avoid speaking out because they fear eviction. But many Treasure Island residents could face eviction anyway once construction on the new development starts. Certain households will be offered a cash payment or new unit from the city, but around 200 others aren't entitled to either and could be told to leave in five to 10 years.

Washington accepted a relocation package and moved off the island in September. Miller doesn't know whether she's eligible for a payment, but said she'd worry that accepting it could prohibit her from suing the Navy over her health problems later. (The official contract, however, does not contain language that forbids residents from suing.)Advertisement

"That cash payment comes with a condition as far as I'm concerned," Miller said. "Whatever the hell I have, I'm going to have it anyway. We're going to ride this out."

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