Navy's Treasure Island Radiation Report Found Wanting

The Navy’s report is part of the process of turning the military land over to the city of San Francisco, which has approved construction of 8,000 homes there.

Recent U.S. Navy explanations for widespread readings of radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station don’t adequately explore the possibility that the base might have been dusted for years with radioactive ash, soaked with radioactive sewage and contaminated by radioactive garbage, California health regulators said today.

The response addressed an Aug. 6 draft report by the Navy, which was aimed at assuaging concerns about the base’s history of radioactive material. It detailed possible sources, including devices used to train sailors for nuclear war. It also described ship repair operations that occurred during an era when vessels frequently returned to the San Francisco Bay from Pacific atomic tests.

The Navy’s report is part of the process of turning the military land over to the city of San Francisco, which has approved construction of 8,000 homes there.

The August draft included the Navy’s acknowledgement that the base’s radiation history was more widespread than previously reported. But the Navy also sought to assure state and city officials that a radioactive cleanup was well in hand, and that the base should be ready for preliminary development some time in 2013.

However, the California Department of Public Health, which raised concerns in 2010 about possible deficiencies in the Navy’s radioactive cleanup, suggested today in its response to that draft that the military agency might have significant work to do to earn a clean bill of health.

Among examples cited by health department officials:

  • The Navy has yet to explain the significance of a 1965 report that described how “radioactive and poisonous wastes had been buried west of the abandoned landing strip in a future construction area.”
  • The Navy hasn’t released complete information about 1,500 soil samples taken on the island, leaving uncertainty about whether or not some areas still contain radioactive material that exceed state health regulations.
  • The Navy hasn’t fully explored whether radioactive material might have been spread over the years by wind, seepage and water flow.
  • The Navy hasn’t sufficiently documented tests for radiation around old sewage lines, at abandoned garbage dumps and along the path of smoke that could have blown across the island from an old Navy garbage incinerator.

Aaron Peskin, a former San Francisco supervisor and co-plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that environmental review of the proposed development has fallen short, said the Navy’s failures demand an outside inquiry.

“It’s time for our elected leaders to call for an independent, third-party, scientific review that is not run by the U.S. Navy, whose credibility has been in question for decades,” said Peskin, after reviewing the state health department comments.

A Navy spokesman declined comment, saying cleanup officials hadn’t yet reviewed the health department responses.

The responses are the latest salvo in a war of words between state health regulators and the Navy that heightened over the past year when regulators warned in a series of internal memos that Treasure Island might not be cleared for development.

Problems began not long after the Navy released an earlier 2006 report about the history of radioactive material on the island. It suggested that, unlike highly contaminated former bases such as the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, the Treasure Island Naval Shipyard was relatively clean.

Soon afterward, cleanup workers began finding dozens of encrusted disks of radium-226 buried in the soil in unexpected places. They dug trenches to check for further radioactivity, and found readings down as deep as the water level of the San Francisco Bay.

In 2010, health department workers declared the historical study deeply flawed, and later urged the Navy to halt its cleanup, in part because hundreds of container-loads of waste had been transported throughout the island without the proper care required for transport and storage of radioactive material.

Since then, health officials have pressed for more accurate information about the Navy’s radioactive legacy and past cleanup efforts, which they say is essential to pinpointing not just locations, but the breadth and scope of the remaining work.

The Navy announced earlier this year it would produce the new study of the island’s history – and a revised cleanup plan.

The resulting efforts, including the draft report, are wanting, according to today’s response, signed by Larry Morgan, California’s senior health physicist.

For one, the Navy still hasn’t adequately explained what, exactly, the radioactive disks were used for, why they were found in the soil, and what the Navy did with them once they’d been discovered, the health department response said.

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This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at

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