Albion Monitor /News

Treasure Island is "Oil-Soaked Sponge," Suit Claims

by Jeff Elliott

Charging that more than 464,000 violations of federal clean water laws have occurred at Treasure Island, a coalition of Bay environmental groups filed suit last Tuesday demanding that the Navy clean up contamination before the island is turned over to San Francisco next year.

"Looking at the beautiful setting of Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, it is exceddingly depressing to think that those San Francisco Bay landmarks are the site of perhaps the greatest number of violations of petroleum-handling rules in the entire Bay Area," says Saul Bloom, Executive Director of Arc Ecology, one of the groups in the coalition.

Six inches of petroleum floating on top of groundwater near the Bay

Saturating the island's soil and floating on top shallow groundwater, decades worth of spilled oil, mostly diesel fuel from leaking storage tanks, lies hidden. And because the underground storm drain system has fallen apart over the years, that oil is seeping into the pipes and flushes into San Francisco Bay with each rain.

Bloom and others in the Campaign Against Military Pollution (CAMP) coalition say the Navy is doing nothing to repair the damage. "The galling part is that they've allocated no money to clean this up, yet the Navy wants to hand it over to the city," says Bloom.

The lawsuit against the Navy is the latest effort by CAMP, which previously sued the Navy last August for environmental damage at Treasure Island. After filing the suit last fall, says Bloom, "We negotiated [with the Navy] for about nine months, and nothing was done. We want the military to know that we're dead serious -- that they have to clean up these sites."

According to a story in the March 6th Chronicle, Navy spokesman Ken McNeill says they have an "ongoing investigation and remedial cleanup" of these sites, and plans to "restore our installation to its pristine condition."

But Gina Kathuria of the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board confirms Bloom's charge that the Navy has not even started repairing the damage, although only 20 months remain before the base is closed. Kathuria says that there are about 45 known contaminated sites on the island, including six inches of petroleum floating on top of groundwater near the Bay.

"Federal money should pay for it, not the taxpayers of San Francisco"

Treasure Island's problems are compounded by its unique geology and history. Originally San Francisco's airport, the first trans-Pacific passenger flights left from its runways, skimming over Bay waters to points West. Not long after the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939-40, the Navy used the island as the major point of departure for soldiers and equipment in the WWII Pacific Theatre. More than 12,000 soldiers and machines moved through the base each day. The Navy kept Treasure Island after the war and occasionally allowed civilian use, such as the filming of "The Cain Mutiny" and other movies and TV programs, which continues today.

But except for adjacent Yerba Buena -- which is little more than a rocky outcropping in the Bay -- the entire Island is manmade. Workers in 1936 began by assembling an octagonal ring of stones and dredging out the center. With additional mud, silt, and gravel imported from the Sacramento Delta and beyond, enough loosely-packed soil was gradually piled up to rise thiry feet above sea level.

The island took a beating during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, with the floors of some buildings sinking a couple of inches. (The buildings did not collapse because walls of the old airport structures are supported by pilings resting on bedrock.) Everyone agrees that the entire island needs seismic stabilization, estimated to cost at least $300,000.

"Treasure Island is sinking," says Leeann Lahren, one of the lawyers for CAMP. "The Navy wants to turn it over as soon as possible. But federal money should pay for [stabilization and cleanup], not the taxpayers of San Francisco."

Cleanup of all Bay Area military sites would exceed $2 billion

Deciding who pays for military base pollution is the heart of the battle, and a controversy that CAMP has fought at other Bay Area sites. As the military prepares to turn over former bases to civilian government, CAMP says they are trying evade responsibility for the expensive cleanup needed.

Saul Bloom uses the situation at Mare Island Naval Shipyard as an example: "The Navy had the money in hand to remediate radioactive material there, but they proposed placing a temporary cap over the site. We said, 'everybody wants you to clean this up, but you want [a civilian] agency to do it -- and that agency doesn't have the money.'

"The bottom line is that the military base in Vallejo did not protect Vallejo -- it protected the United States. And it's the federal government's responsibility to clean it up."

Bloom cites similar problems at bases in Concord, Alameda, Hunters Point and the Presidio in San Francisco, Point Molati in Richmond, and Moffitt Field. Bloom says that a leaking 500,000 gallon tank was recently removed at Moffitt Field, and that about 800 tanks in the Presidio are in some form of disrepair. CAMP estimates that cleanup of all Bay Area military sites would exceed $2 billion.

At Hamiliton Field in Novato, Bloom says, the military has delayed cleanup for a quarter century. "They're not willing to go back and look at this [contamination], even though there's material that's in the flood plain. These issues are being ignored because the government just has so much money to go around -- it's a disincentive to do anything. But hiding this stuff won't make it any easier -- somebody's got to clean it up."

CAMP's charges against the Navy over Treasure Island are largely drawn from the military's own records, and the group suggests that the damage is even more extensive than indicated in the suit. The Navy only obtained samples from nine storm drains, for example, leaving fifty others unexamined.

The suit alleges that there are almost 20,000 underground storage tank violations on the base, about 60 thousand "immanent and substantial endangerment" violations, and more than 41,000 hazardous material violations, for a total of roughly 120 thousand.

Although each day that passes without remediation counts as a separate violation, the Clean Water Act only allows the group to go back as far as five years.

Besides Arc Ecology, the other group filing suit against the Navy is San Francisco BayKeeper, a citizen's organization that monitors the Bay for environmental violations and pressures regulatory agencies to enforce environmental laws.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page