Neil's News

Treasure Island

30 May 2019

Treasure Island sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It is an artificial island created in the 1930s as a side-effect of dredging mud to create shipping channels.

[This photo was taken with my quadcopter. Note the extreme angle as it leans into the wind coming off the Pacific Ocean to the right.]

For many decades Treasure Island was owned and operated by the US Navy. They trained personnel as well as serviced ships and naval aircraft. In the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, they closed the base and gave the land to San Francisco.

[An old naval gun in the foreground, with the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge in the background.]

Housing in San Francisco is notoriously expensive and in short supply, so upon receiving Treasure Island with its now-empty homes, the city quickly opened it up for renting. More than two thousand low-income residents flocked to the island.

[Treasure Island residents on a playground with stunning views of San Francisco's skyline.]

At this point the story becomes controversial.

One version of events is that while the Navy owned the island, they refurbished Radium-coated dials here. This resulted in radioactive pollution that threatens the current residents. The city is evicting tenants from their houses and suing the Navy to decontaminate the land and replace the topsoil.

[Condemned vacant houses that are fenced off on a radioactive area.]

Another version of events is that the magnitude of the problem is being deliberately blown out of proportion so that existing residents can be evicted, clearing the way for billions of dollars worth of high rise property development. Treasure Island is just ten minutes from both downtown San Francisco and downtown Oakland and is prime real estate.

[Radium-coated clock hands similar to those causing controversy on Treasure Island. These were purchased on eBay for $14. They fluoresce under ultraviolet light.]

The Navy surveyed the island and determined that "there is no radiological health risk to the community". Obviously the Navy have a strong financial incentive to understate the risk since they are liable for any necessary cleanup. Meanwhile the City of San Francisco surveyed the island and determined that the Navy is "lying". Obviously the City has a strong financial incentive to overstate the risk since they can get billions of dollars from selling the land to developers if they can evict the current residents.

[A Vietnamese resident talking about life on the island.]

With no independent survey, it is impossible to know the truth. Both sides have ulterior motives. Meanwhile the island's residents (predominantly black or immigrant) love their home in the middle of the bay. None of the residents we spoke to had any concerns about radiation.

This post is a collaboration with Sierra who did a photo essay on Treasure Island for school.

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