Dozens of current and former Treasure Island residents filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday saying that authorities lied for years about the extent of contamination there, exposing the residents and their families to radioactive substances and toxic chemicals.
“Untrue and misleading statements” about the island by government agencies and private firms created a false picture of safety, according to the lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court. The plaintiffs have “suffered serious emotional distress from a fear that they will develop cancer.”
The complaint seeks $2 billion in damages from several defendants, including the city development authority on Treasure Island; representatives of the U.S. Navy, which polluted the island while running it as a naval base decades ago and is now responsible for cleaning it up; the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees the cleanup; the San Francisco health department; the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (now called One Treasure Island); developers Lennar and FivePoint Holdings LLC; and the John Stewart Co., which manages leases.
Also named as defendants are two engineering firms that performed cleanup tasks on the island, Tetra Tech EC and Shaw Environmental.
Representatives of the state and the Navy said they don’t comment on pending litigation. The city health department and island development authority referred questions to the city attorney.
“The safety of San Francisco residents is our top priority,” John Coté, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said in a statement. “The information that we have from state and federal regulators is that the parts of the island where people live, work and visit are safe.” He added that “the vast majority” of the lawsuit does not involve the city, and he denied the allegation that city officials withheld information from residents: “That is false.”
Representatives of One Treasure Island, the John Stewart Co. and Tetra Tech EC said they had not received a copy of the complaint and could not comment. Tetra Tech EC spokesman Sam Singer pointed to a 2019 Navy statement saying that the company’s radiological work on the island was limited, “consistent and accurate.”
In a statement, FivePoint spokesman Steve Churm said that the company does not comment on litigation matters, but said FivePoint “has never had any ownership in any portion of Treasure Island” and that the company does not “have any responsibility for development of that project.”
The other defendants didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“It is a travesty that so many people have lived in a contaminated area without knowing the full extent of the radiation they were exposed to,” Stanley Goff, a civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview. “We may not know what the full effects of this are for decades.”
In addition to financial compensation, the lawsuit demands that all building and digging on the island be halted “until independent verified reports” confirm a “complete and total remediation of all toxic substances, including all radioactive materials.”
The city is partnering with private developers on a $6 billion project to transform the island into condos, parks and a hotel. Construction has already begun on 266 luxury units at neighboring Yerba Buena Island; revenue from those condo sales is expected to help fund new infrastructure on Treasure Island.
State and federal agencies have said there are no health risks to Treasure Island residents and the public, and regulators have declared many pieces of land safe. A 2014 analysis of cancer data by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California found no evidence of elevated cancer rates among Treasure Island residents between 2002 and 2011, though the authors noted that the small and fluctuating population made it difficult to draw statistically meaningful conclusions.
The site’s master developer, Treasure Island Community Development — a partnership between Lennar and Stockbridge Capital Group/Wilson Meany — has pointed to “significant progress” in the cleanup, saying in a September statement that “hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to identify and remove contaminants per State of California standards in order to ensure the island is safe for development.”
But the housing area on the north and northwest portion of the island, known as Site 12, remains a question mark. Fences with radioactive hazard signs snake through it, warning people to stay out of areas that lay within feet of occupied homes.
The lawsuit identifies 47 plaintiffs by name and seeks to represent 2,000 more who had “substantial contact” with Treasure Island since 2006. The class-action complaint follows several recent lawsuits over problems with the cleanup at San Francisco’s other tainted naval base, the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
Two of the plaintiffs and Goff announced the lawsuit Tuesday in front of San Francisco Superior Court.
Andre Patterson and Felita Sample said they lived in Site 12 from 2004 to 2017. Speaking to the media Tuesday, the former neighbors said they suffered injuries they attribute to radiation. Patterson showed tumors on his shoulder and his side. Sample showed the gap where a tooth fell out and said she has suffered from high blood pressure and heart problems since living on the island.
Brandishing a sheaf of paper — notices, flyers and letters from regulatory agencies — Patterson said he had raised concerns with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor London Breed. All “gave us the big blow-off,” Patterson said.
According to the lawsuit, the defendants concealed problems with contamination.
Radioactive substances first tainted the island during the Cold War, when the Navy brought ships to San Francisco that had been exposed to atomic-bomb tests in the Pacific. Particles of fallout flaked and spread from the ships’ hulls. The Navy also discarded large numbers of radium-dipped devices in landfills.
In 2006, the Navy published what was supposed to be a thorough account of the island’s radiological history, listing all potential danger zones. But in years that followed, technicians kept finding radioactive contamination where it wasn’t supposed to be.
For instance, between 2008 and last fall, contractors found and removed almost 1,300 small radioactive objects in the Site 12 housing area, some next to occupied units. These ongoing discoveries, a problem first revealed by reporter Carol Harvey at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, are confirmed by Navy records obtained by The Chronicle.
In 2011, state technicians tested Treasure Island’s roads with gamma scanners towed across the surface and found five areas of “significantly elevated radiation levels” in places accessible to the public, according to a state report.
Two years later, reporters with the Center for Investigative Reporting gathered soil samples and had them tested. The tests revealed elevated concentrations of cesium-137, a byproduct of nuclear fission, close to a building where cesium-137 samples had once been stored. Experts told the reporters that the unexpected findings called for further tests, but the Navy and the city’s development authority said there was no need for action, and the health department didn’t comment.
The lawsuit says the defendants knew radiation levels on the island were “significantly higher” than the Navy admitted, but did not tell the public.
The Chronicle reported in September that during the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency considered adding Treasure Island to the Superfund list, a group of the country’s most polluted sites. In 1991, the island earned a “hazard score” that more than qualified it as a Superfund site, yet for unclear reasons the EPA never named it to the list.
Environmental advocacy groups said the decision led to a dysfunctional and delayed cleanup, making the process less transparent and leaving Treasure Island residents in the dark for years about contamination near their homes.
Jason Fagone, Cynthia Dizikes and Michael Cabanatuan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @jasonfagone, @cdizikes, @ctuan