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Lawsuit aims to stop thousands of planned Treasure Island homes

Former and current island residents allege deadly radiation risk remains despite public assurances

Aerial view from the south of San Francisco’s Treasure island showing a small craft harbor, historic buildings, and the San Francisco Bay. Via Shutterstock

San Francisco is counting on Treasure Island as the site of more than 8,000 planned new homes, a massive expansion of residential development now underway. But dozens of current and former residents have filed suit to stop construction, alleging that the island remains a health hazard.

A class-action lawsuit with 47 named plaintiffs on behalf of more than 2,000 people who currently or formerly lived on Treasure Island alleges that the city, Navy officials, and private bodies like developer Lennar Inc. and nonprofit One Treasure Island (previously the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative, as it’s named in the suit), have ignored or covered up potentially dangerous levels of radiation.

The complaint, filed last week in San Francisco Superior Court, names over a dozen defendants, among them the city’s Treasure Island Development Authority and Department of Public Health.

Although city agencies get sued all of the time and most suits never really go anywhere (regardless of whether they have merit or not), this action may give City Hall pause given how important the island is to future housing plans.

SF has eyed Treasure Island for development ever since the Navy turned it over in the late 1990s. Right now it’s the second-largest planned residential development in the city, behind the Hunters Point/Candlestick project (another long-troubled Navy project).

The suit seeks $2 billion in damages. But more importantly, the plaintiffs hope to “stop all construction, building, digging, erecting, disturbing the soil, dirt, earth, structures, buildings, pipes, and all activity at Treasure Island until independent verified reports” confirm it’s safe.

The city built the 400-plus acre artificial island for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Years later, the Navy used it as a training area for radioactive decontamination.

The suit alleges that the Navy’s measurements of cesium-137, a radioactive isotope commonly found in areas and equipment for 20th century nuclear tests that carries a pronounced cancer risk, were inadequate and that soil on the island is 60 percent more radioactive than once believed.

Over the years, the Navy has acknowledged more widespread contamination than it originally assessed, including chemical waste on top of irradiated material, but still maintains that the full area is safe for habitation.

The suit cites a bevy of past studies about radiological hazards, the most recent being an independent 2012 analysis by the Center For Investigative Reporting.

While the findings of that report “do not necessarily confirm a health hazard” and “are no greater than common contamination worldwide” due to fallout, they do exceed previously acknowledged levels of irradiation. Disgruntled residents say this and other findings are reason for more thorough independent testing.

In March of last year, the Navy released the results of yet another investigation, this one finding that controversial contractor Tetra Tech (also named as a defendant in this new suit) performed adequately in cleanup efforts and asserting again that “there is no radiological health risk to the community.”

Six months later the Navy acknowledged finding a chunk of radioactive material the size of a basketball beneath an island home. Officials persisted that that discovery, though a surprise, also posed no danger to the public.

In response to the suit, Navy spokesperson Bill Franklin told Curbed SF that the Navy won’t comment on matters in litigation. None of the other defendants have yet returned request for comment.