Toxic Terror in San Francisco
- Coalition fights community exposure to asbestos, other hazards
Toxic Terror in San Francisco
By Charlene Muhammad
Jan 29, 2008
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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 Pointnot retaining the
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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