Growing Up in Someone Else's Mess: Facing Environmental Racism First Hand (Part One)

ToxicI didn't want to miss out on my right to vote when I turned 18. So, when the registration form arrived in the mail, I promptly turned it in. But the fat booklet that followed detailing all the different issues to be voted on was a bit daunting at first, just because of all the jargon. I read it anyway and what I found motivated me to start thinking about much more than local politics.

The booklet had a list of propositions, or suggestions for changes on the city and state levels. One proposition, in particular, caught my eye. It was called Proposition P and it called for a city policy (in addition to a federal one) requiring the Navy to clean up the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard and to bring it to "residential standards."
"The people here live near the facility that handles old batteries and oils (You know, the ones you aren't supposed to just throw away?). Then there's the PG&E power plant and the freeways, sending thousands of cars speeding past our homes every day. And what about those warehouses, factories and iron smelters awkwardly situated in pockets between the residential areas?"


"Huh?" I thought to myself. I didn't even know there was a shipyard in Hunter's Point, let alone that it was contaminated with harmful chemicals. I live in Southeast San Francisco, an area that encompasses Hunter's Point, the Bayview District and several other poor and working class neighborhoods. "How dare the Navy abandon this shipyard without a thought about the people who were raising families nearby," I thought. It seemed ridiculous that the city had to play mommy to get the Navy to clean up after itself.

I was relieved when San Francisco voters passed proposition P by 87%, but I still felt insulted. I wasn't done asking questions. I wanted to know how this kind of environmental hazard could exist right here in my backyard. So, I started doing my own research and talking about it with people in my neighborhood and in the rest of the Bay Area.

It's Not a Coincidence

As it turns out, Southeast San Francisco is home to quite an environmental mess. Aside from miles of homes here, there are several large housing projects located right near the shipyard. In addition, the people here live near the facility that handles old batteries and oils (You know, the ones you aren't supposed to just throw away?). Then there's the PG&E power plant and the freeways, sending thousands of cars speeding past our homes every day. And what about those warehouses, factories and iron smelters awkwardly situated in pockets between the residential areas?

The homes in my district cost several hundred thousands of dollars less than smaller ones in other parts of my city. It is one of the more affordable places in the Bay Area to live. My parents arrived in San Francisco as Cambodian refugees in 1981, and it didn't take them very long to locate affordable housing here. The same is true for other working class African American, Asian Pacific Islander American and Latino American families. My family was largely ignorant of the contamination until I started voting, and asking myself, is it purely coincidence that poor people and people of color reside near the shipyard and other contaminants? Clearly, it's not the chemicals that go around singling out and attacking communities of color. Someone had to put them there. Someone made the decision that the residents here were not worth protecting.

ToxicThe Navy's Nuclear Wasteland

During the Cold War, the shipyard had become a bustling center of scientific activity. A San Francisco Weekly investigative Report that was titled "Fall Out" by Lisa Davis uncovered information about various experiments conducted with radioactive material at the shipyard during the Cold War. Some were even done on humans and animals.

The shipyard also contains non-radioactive contamination, especially benzene and vinyl chlorides, which are known carcinogens. But Davis found the area is still largely mysterious to Bay Area residents. She called the shipyard a wasteland resembling a Hollywood apocalypse movie set after the Navy abandoned the site in the 1970s.
"Last August a fire from the shipyard burned for over a month before federal and city firefighters could extinguish it."


The Navy has not always properly disposed of hazardous waste, so of course it now believes the shipyard to be "too dangerous to thoroughly investigate, and that the safest way to deal with it is to place a permanent cap on top of it," the SF Weekly story reported. Currently the Navy has "temporarily" capped the area by placing over it layers of fiber material, rock and dirt; meanwhile, no official long-term solution has been decided upon.

Before reading Davis' article, I spoke to toxicologist Daniel Stralka of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Navy in the clean-up. He said, "While the contamination is contained there is no hazard and [there are] no long term effects."

But SF Weekly suggests otherwise. In 1952, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at the shipyard experimented with 15 grams of plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that all 15 grams still exist and will continue to for thousands of years.

Even one of these particles, if inhaled and lodged in the lungs, can cause cancer. Theoretically then, the plutonium experimented with can cause 15 million cases of cancer.

Clearly, no cap can outlive such radioactive chemicals, and some gaseous chemicals can seep out into the urban environment. Environmental expert Dr. Davis explains in the article that the radioactive chemicals need to be removed from the shipyard so that they can be properly monitored.

Last August a fire from the shipyard burned for over a month before federal and city firefighters could extinguish it. I did not notice when "plumes of green and yellow smoke floated over the Bayview community that abuts the shipyard," perhaps because I live closer to the Candlestick Point area, which is not immediately around the shipyard. The Navy didn't bother to inform any residents or city officials for weeks until visible smoke appeared.

That disgusts me. I know that it is easier for the Navy to just close its eyes, cap the toxic spew and pretend that everything will be okay as long as the cap is there, but people are living here. We're playing, learning, raising our kids, growing food, and working here, and we don't deserve this. No one does.
"Now, I question the toxicity of the fruits, vegetables and herbs my family has grown in our backyard over the years."


Our Health

With the shipyard capped or uncapped, my family is definitely affected by our environment. But compared to many African-American families in the area, my family is relatively new. I don't know how living here does or does not threaten my family's health. When my parents first arrived, we lived in the Double Rock housing projects. In my pre-school years I acutely remember having a hard time breathing. Doctors said it was linked to childhood asthma; I could outgrow it. I did, but the reasons why are not at all clear. I do remember that my health seemed to improve when my parents got off of welfare, and we moved out of the projects and into another part of the Bayview District.

Now, I question the toxicity of the fruits, vegetables and herbs my family has grown in our backyard over the years. Some of the herbs are distinct ingredients in the Cambodian dishes my mother prepares, and one is not readily available in Asian supermarkets here. Though I consider myself to be in generally good health today, I don't know what the long-term affects of eating these vegetables, of drinking the water or of breathing the air here will be.

Some of the African American families here have more experience with the long-term effects of contaminants in the community. Many have lost family members and friends to cancer. When I started reading my neighborhood newspaper, the San Francisco Bayview, I learned that my community has among the highest rates of prostrate cancer, lung cancer and breast cancer in San Francisco.

But the people who are living right near the shipyard are experiencing the most health problems. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article this past February about the people who live in the housing complex just above the shipyard. According to the article, residents of these federally subsidized buildings have complained of rashes, hacking coughs, respiratory problems, headaches, nosebleeds and high blood pressure over the last two years. Many residents said that when they leave their apartment to visit relatives, their symptoms disappear. One resident said that within 15 minutes after returning to her apartment, she would start wheezing.

Regardless of the actual relationship between the environment and health, I am concerned that people in neighborhoods like mine are not getting all the information, particularly the residents here who have language barriers. Everyone has a right to know what kind of environment they are living and raising their children in. Many of the Asians and Latinos here are recent immigrants like my parents were. Even my family has trouble communicating with other families because there are so many Asian languages.

Jesse Mason, outreach job coordinator from an organization called Bayview Advocates, which has been active in educating residents about environmental justice here, said, "We've been trying to let [Asians] know, that 'it will affect [them] just like it has affected us.'"

In yet another example of toxicity in my neighborhood, I also learned that the post office was built over a wrecking yard that existed in the 1950s until the 1960s, when it was covered over by a landfill. "Even with that landfill, it still creates some emissions of toxins," said Mason. "A lot of the [people] who are working at [that] post office are getting sick. The shipyard is a very dangerous place," he continued. "We have to be responsible enough to bring that information to [all people] who are moving into the community."

Join Katherine for the second half of this journey, as she learns more about the growing national Environmental Justice movement and talks about how youth can get involved.

Katherine Sear, 19, is a WireTap contributing writer and student at UC Berkely.

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