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Toxic Terror in San Francisco

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    Coalition fights community exposure to asbestos, other hazards Toxic Terror in San Francisco By Charlene Muhammad Jan 29, 2008
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2008
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      Coalition fights community exposure to asbestos, other hazards


      Toxic Terror in San Francisco
      By Charlene Muhammad
      Jan 29, 2008
      http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/article_4345.shtml


      Protestors demand clean up of toxic site in Bay View Hunters Point.
      Photo: Charlene Muhammad


      SAN FRANCISCO (FinalCall.com) - A cross section of Black, Latino,
      Asian-Pacific Islander and progressive Whites are determined to win a
      battle with city and congressional leaders over what activists call
      one of the most horrific cases of environmental racism and political
      double dealing in the country.

      The fight began when children at the Muhammad University of Islam
      (MUI), which sits at the top of Bay View Hunters Point, were
      unknowingly exposed for months, maybe longer, to asbestos and other
      cancer-causing toxins when the Lennar Corporation a multi-billion
      dollar housing developer began grading a hill directly beside the
      school to make way for 1,500 homes on the site of the old Hunters
      Point Naval Shipyard.

      MUI opened its doors to the community in 1997 and moved to its current
      location in Hunters Point in 2002. It currently educates Muslim
      children as well as children from across the city. Currently the
      school educates about 100 students and often, as they played outside
      during recess and physical education classes, thick, toxic dust would
      begin to blow in a tornado-like pattern over the schoolyard.

      During that same period, Leon Muhammad, MUI's dean, noticed that the
      children began complaining about breathing problems, and experiencing
      chronic nosebleeds, skin rashes, asthma and eye swelling. One student
      became so ill she was hospitalized for a month for bronchitis.

      Catherine Muhammad's son developed skin rashes, but his worst
      experience was being sent home from school after his actual eyeball
      swelled up. Her two-year-old daughter underwent surgery and a
      three-day hospital stay to remove hardened mucous from her left lung.

      Eleven-year-old Amos Loto attends the school, which sits right across
      the street from his family's housing unit.His nose has bled since he
      was four-years-old.His 30-year-old aunt, Puni Paopao, who rears him,
      told The Final Call that when she moved here in 1996 to take care of
      her mother, she was perfectly healthy, but in 2003, she was diagnosed
      with uterine cancer.

      "I was a healthy person and worked two jobs when I lived in Monterey,
      but now I'm permanently disabled.I have to take seven pills and sleep
      with a breathing machine, but the doctors say they don't know why.I
      really want something to be done because our people are getting sick
      and we don't know why.We have to find out for the children," Ms.
      Paopao said.

      Chris Carpenter, who had worked to clean up the toxic site under a
      sub-contractor hired by Lennar, alerted Student Minister Christopher
      Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque No. 26 and MUI of the potential health
      hazards to the children, whom he noticed remained playing outside
      after dust conditions caused work crew shutdowns.

      "I wanted to do the right thing as far as expose the company of their
      wrongdoings.What I've learned from this is that no one cares about our
      community.They were exposing us to asbestos without any warning, and
      they didn't care," Mr. Carpenter told The Final Call.

      As Mr. Muhammad began investigating, he found that the health threat,
      kept a secret by the developer, also reached into the community, and
      he, the Muslims and a handful of environmental activists, including
      Francisco Da Costa, president of the Environmental Justice Advocacy,
      and Alicia Schwartz of People Organized To Win Employment Rights
      (P.O.WE.R.), began its campaign to stop Lennar. Mr. Muhammad led the
      believers of Mosque No. 26 on a door-to-door campaign, with the
      community telling residents about potential dangers and they united in
      efforts to protect residents of the predominantly Black community. In
      weekly town hall meetings, which have been going on for nearly a year,
      the coalition plots strategy, hears resident concerns and gives out
      information. The Jan. 17 town hall meeting at Grace Tabernacle Church
      under the leadership of Bishop Ernest Jackson was packed.

      "You know what, why does Minister Muhammad still have his kids up
      there?" Mayor Gavin Newsom asked, according to the San Francisco
      Sentinel. "He was given an opportunity to move his kids," he added.

      But Mr. Muhammad said that all children of Bay View Hunters Point have
      the right to breathe clean air. "This is not just about the children
      who attend the MUI. If we pulled our school of the area, who would
      advocate for our people and warn them about what they've been exposed
      to and organize to fight for them? What Mayor Newsom, Lennar and its
      surrogates wanted me to do was leave the community exposed, and they
      hoped that this whole issue of their poisoning our babies and
      community would go with me," Mr. Muhammad stated.

      "This movement that's happening in this community will give birth to a
      nationwide movement. If you look at us as the embryo, we're growing up
      quickly and all of us have had to make some very difficult
      decisions.People who we thought were friends have turned their backs
      on us, but we have knitted our souls together," said Bishop Jackson.

      Archbishop Franzo King of the African Orthodox Church Jurisdiction of
      the West credited Mr. Muhammad with sustaining the movement for
      environmental justice. "He is an articulate speaker, who has taken
      this thing to heart and conducted himself as an A+ student on this
      issue. That has a lot to do with the confidence that the people have
      in this man has made this his personal education experience. It also
      has sustained because Min. Louis Farrakhan has raised him and sent him
      to this city in a time when it needs a voice that can speak without
      cracking, without reservation and with his eyes set on pleasing God
      instead of Pharaoh."

      "They're our brothers and sisters who are being contaminated because
      of what our government is doing and if I care about the people of Iraq
      and want them to stop dying for no reason of course I want my
      neighbors to stop being contaminated and dying and getting all these
      diseases," said Cindy Sheehan, a congressional candidate and former
      peace activist.

      Members of the African American Community Revitalization Consortium,
      comprised of local churches, merchants, residents and organizations,
      opposed the community's quest for justice. "Yet, this group is backed
      by Lennar and draws its members from among those with a personal
      financial stake in the company's San Francisco projects," wrote San
      Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Sarah Phelan. In addition there were
      efforts to discredit Mr. Muhammad and the coalition in the community.

      Despite the staunch opposition, also leveled by other Black political
      leaders whom critics allege struck personal backroom deals involving
      housing and money, the coalition has remained strong, focused and
      intact for the last year and a half. The coalition kept fighting and
      built a strong committed movement against an economically and
      politically powerful corporation and city political power structure.

      No warning from developer

      Lennar, the Florida-based conglomerate, is the number one home builder
      in America. It boasts a portfolio of about $1.3 billion, yet was able
      to purchase one of four parcels of the Naval Shipyard from the city
      for $1 and with the aid of Mayor Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and
      Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who received $82 million from the defense budget
      to help with the clean up. In a rush to build a football stadium to
      keep the San Francisco 49ers, who are looking to leave the city when
      their contract expires in several years, as well housing, parks, roads
      and other improvements, the city is overlooking critical health
      impacts to Hunters Point residents, advocates say.

      Part of Lennar's promise was to perform certified Asbestos Surveys;
      place two monitors on the site to conduct real-time air monitoring
      upwind and down; and reduce dust by watering all exposed asbestos
      containing materials.

      According to Mr. Muhammad, when he asked questions about whether the
      construction was exposing children to danger, Kofi Bonner, president
      of Lennar's Bay Area Urban Land Division, said there was nothing to
      worry about. Mr. Bonner said exposure levels were so low the
      children's health had not been negatively impacted and it would take
      70 years of exposure before any cancer or respiratory problems would
      occur, Mr. Muhammad said.

      "The Lennar corporation did not come to us and tell us our children
      and community were in danger.We learned this from a whistleblower on
      their site.They were working 10 feet from children who were already
      suffering the historic impacts of environmental injustice. When you
      know you're operating in a community like this, you have to be extra
      careful but they didn't do that.This is murder with intent," charged
      Mr. Muhammad.

      He asked Lennar to temporarily stop working until the health of the
      children could be assessed, but the company refused.

      The San Francisco Department of Public Health also denied Mr.
      Muhammad's repeated requests to have the children tested for exposures
      to toxins coming from the shipyard with epidemiologists and
      toxicologists. Dr. Mitchell Katz, San Francisco Director of Health,
      has the power to order work stoppages if he discovers potential health
      risks, but in a December 1, 2006 letter, he wrote that shipyard
      operations presented no potential health risk to the community,
      although no child had been tested.

      Last year, the Center for Self Improvement, a non-profit created by
      Mosque No. 26, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the community against
      Lennar and its contractor, Gordon Ball, under Proposition 65
      (California's "right to know" law), alleging that the companies had
      graded and excavated asbestos-laced materials without informing the
      school or the community. The Center said it was not until October
      2006, several months after intensive grading began, that it learned
      that Lennar's construction was creating asbestos dust.

      Meanwhile, three highly-placed Black employees of Lennar filed a
      lawsuit, after they were silenced and demoted for allegedly voicing
      concerns about health and safety violations at the school and in the
      community. "This lawsuit by these courageous African Americans
      confirmed the community's worst fears about exposures to these deadly
      toxins," Mr. Muhammad said. The community is contemplating a
      class-action lawsuit against Lennar for health and safety violations
      as well.

      Shipyard's hazardous history

      The Hunter's Point naval shipyard is one of America's 10 most toxic
      sites and is currently on the Environmental Protection Agency's
      Superfund site list, which means it is prioritized for cleanup because
      of radioactive contamination. The naval shipyard already posed a
      threat to the health of residents because it is contaminated with
      radioactive wastes and other hazardous agents.It was once used by the
      Navy for radiological testing on humans and animals, and to
      decontaminate and dispose of ships returning from nuclear weapons
      tests in the North Pacific Ocean. This shipyard was also the location
      where the Atomic bombs were assembled that were dropped on Hiroshima
      and Nagasaki Japan in World War II.

      "They filled a back bay with radioactive trash and animals, covered
      it, and called it a radioactive landfill … and they also filled up a
      battle ship at Hunters Point with radioactive waste from nuclear
      weapons developments, and sunk the ship, as well as 55 gallon drums of
      radioactive wastes into the ocean off of the San Francisco coast,"
      said Leuren Moret, a California-based scientist and expert on depleted
      uranium.

      That's why the mostly Black residents of Hunters Point already have
      the highest rates of cervical and breast cancer, prostate cancer,
      diabetes and other illnesses in the country, Ms. Moret told The Final
      Call.

      Public health officials still have not tested any families to date.
      Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, Nation of Islam minister of health, conducted
      preliminary testing of MUI students and some community residents, and
      detected arsenic and other contaminants.

      The city public health agency says it won't conduct any tests. It
      claims that there is no available method to accurately test exposure
      to asbestos, however there are tests for other inorganic substances
      such as lead, arsenic, and magnesium. The city responded to community
      complaints by conducting a hypothetical air-monitoring test to
      determine what exposure levels might have been, without direct testing
      of residents.

      The community has been unable to determine the affects of exposure to
      the asbestos dust because Lennar failed to properly monitor dust
      levels as required. It presented its Dust Mitigation Plan to residents
      on July 11, 2005 and on July 14, 2005 Lennar began working at the
      shipyard in violation of their agreement with the Bay Area Quality
      Management District which cited Lennar for failure to follow health
      and safety standards.

      "This proves that Lennar knew what they were doing and intended not to
      follow policies.They started the job disregarding what they promised
      the community from day one, they were issued a notice of violation,
      but were not fined or stopped further placing our community at risk,"
      said Mr. Muhammad.

      In a January 9, 2007, letter from Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the health
      department's director of environmental health, to Dr. Muhammad stated
      there is no doubt that children were exposed to "naturally occurring
      asbestos and other inorganics" —though there was no viable way to test
      them.

      When Lennar finally installed community air monitors according to the
      State of California Department of Public health they were using the
      wrong monitors. The monitors were installed improperly and the data
      collected was useless, according to heath officials.

      "They don't want to test the children or the community and the main
      reason is liability issues, and the other is to avoid delaying
      clean-up of the site, because the City wants to keep the 49ers
      football team here, and this is where Lennar and the city of San
      Francisco started to hunker down and cover their tracks," Mr. Muhammad
      charged.


      Political leaders accused of failure

      Mayor Gavin Newsom, Senator Dianne Feinstein, House Speaker Nancy
      Pelosi have connections to the Lennar Shipyard project. It is alleged
      in some news accounts that Sen. Feinstein's husband owns Blum Capital
      Investments, which has interests in the project.Speaker Pelosi's
      nephew was the director of the naval base acquisitions for Lennar, and
      he is Mayor Newsom's cousin.All three want the 49ers to remain in San
      Francisco.

      "The money will flow, the dirt will fly, progress will get made,"
      Speaker Pelosi declared.

      The progress she touted comes at the neglect of community's health
      issues, the coalition insists.

      The community coalition says officials have had years to clean up the
      site, but only moved into action after the NFL's San Francisco 49ers
      professional football team announced plans to move to Santa Clara,
      when its contract ends in 2012.

      Mayor Newsom said the three politicians have been working for years to
      transform the blighted shipyard into something useful. Sen. Feinstein
      concurred. Speaker Pelosi claimed her efforts centered on improving
      the health and economic well-being of Hunters Point—not retaining the
      49ers.

      The community coalition said if that were true, she would use her
      clout as the Speaker of the House to force testing of residents to
      determine the level of toxic dust contamination.

      Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur as bundles of thin,
      invisible fibers, which produce a hardening agent.Asbestos fibers are
      released from serpentinite rock when it is crushed or broken, and
      through natural weathering processes. According to the National Cancer
      Institute, and the California Environmental Protection Agency, there
      are no safe levels of asbestos exposure and all forms of asbestos
      fibers can cause cancer.

      The right to a safe environment

      The city Board of Supervisors declares in its San Francisco
      Precautionary Principles, that every San Franciscan has an equal right
      to a healthy and safe environment. The policy also says the city has a
      duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm, where there are
      grounds for reasonable concerns. The community also has a right to
      complete and accurate information on potential human health and
      environmental impacts; and decisions applying the principles must be
      transparent, participatory and informed. Lastly the city must act
      quickly at the appearance of harm and not wait for scientific
      confirmation before moving to protect residents.

      Norris McDonald, of the African American Environmentalists
      Association, said the coalition is facing an uphill battle but it can
      win.His organization works for environmental justice on behalf of
      Blacks and others.

      "We don't have a law to protect Blacks from polluted facilities, and
      it's so hard to get a law because of racism and capitalism," he said.

      Mr. McDonald said his group drafted the Environmental Justice Act of
      2005, which would require federal agencies to develop and implement
      policies and practices that promote environmental justice.There are
      not many national examples of successful battles against environmental
      injustice, he said. His organization helped stop plant development in
      "Cancer Alley," a predominantly Black, heavily industrial area in
      Louisiana, where people were contaminated by a power plant.

      The residents of Bay View Hunters Point are still fighting for their
      neighborhood and launched their own initiative to force Lennar to
      provide affordable housing and other improvements it promised. They
      are working to obtain the 8,500 petition signatures that are required
      by Feb. 5 to have the initiative put before voters this June.

      *********************************************************************

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