Residents of the Hunters Point area in San Francisco have been complaining for years about the redevelopment of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which they say is producing toxic, asbestos-laden dust in such quantities that many residents experience headaches, nosebleeds and similar health problems.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says not, and has issued yet another report (recently picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle) that indicates the project has enough safeguards in place to make it a non-issue – a fact activists have been disputing for three years via public hearings and equally public protests.
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral mined and used during most of the 20th century in such products as boiler, pipe and wall insulation, as well as flooring, acoustical ceiling tiles and sprays, and even oven mitts and ironing board covers, is the only recognized cause of malignant mesothelioma, a lethal cancer of the mesothelial linings of the heart, lungs and abdominal organs.
Mesothelioma, which typically does not produce noticeable symptoms until at least the second decade (and sometimes not until the fifth decade), is rarely diagnosed before the tumor has invaded a considerable amount of vital tissue and/or organs. As a result, the prognosis is generally about a year to live.
Newer diagnostic methods, which involve sampling the pleural fluid that builds up around the lungs in the case of pleural mesothelioma – the most common form of the cancer – offers the best hope for early diagnoses and cures.
In the case of Hunters Point, activists are again on a crusade, this time to prevent a 10,500-home development scheduled over the next two decades which has been described as an effort to transform San Francisco’s southeastern harbor. The most recent EPA reports says an analysis of the asbestos monitoring and safety procedures already in place to minimize asbestos exposure indicate no need to halt the construction project.
The EPA is joined by a long list of state and local agencies and individuals who agree the project is low- or no-risk, including the project’s main supporter, Mayor Gavin Newsom. These include the California Department of Health Services and Atlanta, Georgia-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opponents include African American residents of the area, who ask why their neighborhoods continue to be the target of “urban removal”, and charge that Hunters Point is the last area of affordable housing in the city. One faction, led by Muslim minister Christopher Muhammad, insists that the project is sickening residents who, given their position at the bottom of the economic ladder, are unable to defend themselves. Another opponent, known as Greenaction, disputes EPA safety findings, since no residents were screened in developing the report.
The EPA has responded to those charges by citing more sophisticated monitoring systems, including 10 vacuum monitors placed at intervals around the initial, 75-acre development area. The EPA says it also re-evaluated the debris collected by 34 filters using a more precise method to calibrate particulates.
In conclusion, the EPA insists that local oversight of the project to protect residents from asbestos is not only adequate (by EPA standards), but more demanding than the agency itself would apply given the same situation.
In spite of reassurances, it’s understandable why residents are so anxious about asbestos dangers. In September of 2008, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD, the regional government entity that monitors air pollution) fined Lennar Urban $515,000 for failure to control airborne dust on deconstruction roadways, as well as failure to properly calibrate air monitoring equipment and wash work vehicles to prevent the spread of asbestos fibers from the site.
It was the largest fine in the district’s history, and came on the heels of a whistleblower lawsuit against the company which accused Lennar of racial discrimination. A second lawsuit, still pending, claims that Lennar failed to halt work on many occasions even when airborne asbestos levels exceeded BAAQMD thresholds.
A spokesman for Lennar has called the pending lawsuit “without merit.”
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, BeyondChron.org