Navy Subcontractor Breaks Silence About Treasure Island Radiation

A radiation expert among the first to sound the alarm about radiation at Treasure Island speaks publicly for the first time about the Navy's attempts to conceal information from the public

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A health physicist with extensive experience working on radioactive cleanup sites speaks out for the first time and warns that residents and the environment may be at risk on Treasure Island. Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen reports in a story that aired on December 11, 2013. (Published Thursday, Dec 12, 2013)

    A health physicist commissioned to survey San Francisco’s Treasure Island for radiation has revealed for the first time to the Investigative Unit his belief that people never should have been allowed to live there.

    Radiation expert Don Wadsworth was hired on a multimillion dollar contract to perform routine tests for radiation on the former naval station beginning in 2007. He says Navy officials told him they didn’t expect to find any radiological contamination on the island beyond what the Navy had already identified. But Wadsworth said he found radioactive material on sites throughout Treasure Island, including locations adjacent to occupied residences.

    “My job is to protect the people and the environment and it’s not getting done,” Wadsworth said.   

    His company, New World Environmental, based out of Livermore, has performed military cleanups of radioactive sites around the world, including Hunters Point in San Francisco and the Navy bombing yard on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. When asked for his professional opinion about whether people should be living on Treasure Island, he responded without hesitation: “No.”

    During an interview with NBC Bay Area, Wadsworth reviewed a photo from a Navy report provided to regulators, which highlighted a radiation reading taken at building 1101 on Bigelow Court. The report states that the photo shows a technician “evaluating elevated levels of radiation detected beneath a slab” of concrete. The reading shows radiation levels of 80,000 cpm and 30 uR/hr, which according to Wadsworth, translates to one million times what the Environmental Protection Agency or the California Department of Public Health would allow for occupancy.

    The building on Bigelow Court has never been leased to residents because it is located on a known former solid waste disposal site, but it wasn’t until this year that the Navy identified it on a map as being in a “newly identified radiological impacted site.

    Wadsworth says that is an example of the Navy’s reluctance to reveal the nature and degree of radiation contamination on Treasure Island. When asked whether he believes the Navy has tried to cover up the extent of the radiation he said, “I really don’t have a way of knowing what they’re doing but certainly it does appear that way.”

    The Hayes family agrees.

    “The information we get from the Navy is all denial saying everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about and we haven’t found anything alarming at this point,” said Paris Hayes, who has lived on the island with his wife Lucinda for 11 years.

    Four days before Thanksgiving, the Hayes’ and two dozen other households in six residential buildings received letters from the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) informing them that they would need to vacate their apartments beginning in April 2014. The letter states that the Navy is planning work adjacent to the buildings and that it would be necessary for tenants to move out of the buildings to complete the work. It goes on to say that the work “is part of the Navy’s ongoing cleanup of buried and currently inaccessible low level chemicals” and that it is not related to radiological testing.

    “They told us that our relocation was based on the fact that they had to do more surveillance on the property but it was not related to any radioactive material findings,” Lucinda Hayes said.

    However, in a recent map of survey work at Treasure Island drawn up by the Navy, the six buildings slated for relocation—1205 Bayside Dr., 1311 Gateview Dr., 1325 Gateview Dr., 1313 Gateview Dr., 1133 Mason Ct., and 1237 Northpoint Dr.—are located on or next to “newly identified radiologically impacted sites.”

    Like 1101 Bigelow Ct., those buildings now need to be tested for radiation.

    TIDA director Robert Beck denied that there is evidence of any radiological material being buried where people are currently living. He has continually defended the Navy’s position.

    “I think they’ve been extremely straightforward in informing the residents and TIDA,” Beck said.

    But past events show that the Navy may not have been upfront with regulators and residents when it comes to the radiological legacy on Treasure Island. In March 2001, the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board urged the Navy to conduct radiological surveys in the residential area because the Navy hadn’t performed tests to prove its claim that the area was clear of radioactive material. And in February 2006, the Navy wrote in its Treasure Island Naval Station Historical Radiological Assessment report that there is “no evidence that radioactive material was deposited in any debris disposal area on [Naval Station] Treasure Island.”

    The Navy has since acknowledged that radioactive contamination may be more extensive than it had initially reported.

    The Investigative Unit requested an interview with Keith Forman, the head of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission at Treasure Island, but his office said he was not available. After Forman refused to answer questions during a potluck dinner before a public meeting on Treasure Island Tuesday night, NBC Bay Area reached out again to the Navy’s communications office. Officials provided this statement:

    “The Navy is working collaboratively with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Regional Water Quality Control Board, Department of Public Health, US EPA, and the City of San Francisco to investigate, and where necessary, clean up contaminated areas on Treasure Island to protect human health and the environment.  The State, the City, and the Navy do not have any data indicating a risk to human health and all agree there is no imminent health risk to current tenants and/or users of the leased property.  The Navy proactively communicates our environmental program and cleanup schedules to the public during our bi-monthly Restoration Advisory Board meetings with Treasure Island residents, and we will be supporting a residential workshop hosted by Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) tonight, where residents can ask us questions regarding our cleanup efforts.”

    However, the statement did not address specific NBC Bay Area questions provided in writing to the Navy’s communications office about whether radiological contamination has been detected on or near the six buildings where residents are being forced to move, or reaction to Wadsworth’s claims that people never should have been living on the island.

    Residents say it has been a frustrating ordeal for the people who live and work on Treasure Island, and their voices have grown louder as more information surfaces. Some of them voiced their concerns at the Tuesday night’s Restoration Advisory Board meeting hosted by the Navy.

    “You’re playing with thousands of people’s lives out here,” said Seandra Conley. “You come here and you tell us what you want us to hear. But I think you need to go back to whomever and let them know that the tenants on Treasure Island are no longer buying it.”

    The Navy has to assess and clean up the island before selling it to the city as part of a planned $1.5 billion housing development, although there is no firm data for when the project is set to begin.

    Wadsworth warns that the radiological material must be dealt with and cleaned up correctly.

    “It’s a very nice location,” he said. “I can see why people want to develop it. But, having people live there and just cover it over, it’s going to have a significant impact on people’s health.”

    If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email theunit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS.