Toxicity & Utopia: Changing the Medium

By: Taryn Smith

The term remediation has two relevant facets. First, it means to remedy, to make something better. Second, remediation entails a change of medium. Together, these two facets provide the specification of a specific mode of equipment. When confronted by difficulties (conceptual breakdowns, unfamiliarity, technical blockages and the like), ethical practice must be able to render these difficulties in the form of coherent problems that can be reflected on and attended to. Paul Rabinow (2003)



Humans have altered their environment since the beginning of time. We know this from archaeological research and case studies (Habu 2001, Kirsch 1997), and through historical ecology, which “emphasizes the impacts of human activities on their surrounding environment,” making it a “suitable framework for examining local and cumulative global effects on human actions on air, soil, and water quality” (Habu 2013). Long-term historical perspectives offer insight to the pressures and motivations that pushed Homo sapiens to remediate their environments in the past, and they can be applied analytically to observe whether or not those behaviors perished or persist into the contemporary.

In the wake of progress and industrialization in the 20th and 21st centuries, contaminated environments pepper the globe. In the United States, if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems them to be toxic enough, these sites are labeled “Superfund sites.” According to the EPA:

Superfund is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, as amended (CERCLA statute, CERCLA overview). It allows the EPA to clean up such sites and to compel responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-lead cleanups (EPA).

As of October 31, 2013 there were 1,313 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) in the United States; 54 additional sites have been proposed for entry on the list; and 372 sites have been deleted (EPA). As hazardous sites exponentially manifest, the practice of remediating them for reuse becomes increasingly common.


Case Study

To examine these issues more intimately, I conducted ethnographic research in the residential community of Treasure Island, a former military base located in the San Francisco Bay.

Treasure Island is a significant site because it is slated to become a high-rise eco-village, around the year 2030, after the United States Navy will complete the remediation of radioactivity and other lingering contaminants from previous military activity. Treasure Island, with a current population of 2,500, is jointly governed by the U.S. Navy, the State of California, the city of San Francisco, and the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) (City and County of San Francisco 2000-2013). Both the residents and those that govern the island are confronted with the challenge of physically and theoretically navigating through an environment that is contaminated by radionuclides, lead, asbestos, petroleum, arsenic, pesticides, herbicides, semi- volatile organic compounds, dioxins, metals, and various other detected hazardous and poisonous materials (TriEco 2012). The common task shared by these different stakeholders is the challenge of imagining the shared future of this space.

Broadly, my research traces the lines of competing ideas between remediation of contaminated environments and ideals of a utopian future imagined by governmental agencies, developers, and residents. Through the case study of Treasure Island, a community under toxic- waste mitigation and reuse, I focused on three questions in order to explore the notion of remediation. Firstly, what place do nuclear realities and hazardous waste have in the development of an eco-village? Secondly, how is the idea that Treasure Island can be remediated being shaped and practiced? Lastly, what drives stakeholders with different underlying interests to remediate the site? These questions relate to larger conversations concerning remediation, science and hegemony, mindsets, and the futility of desire.

There is no academic research on this site, and little recognition has been given to the paradox of the island’s growing population despite its ongoing contamination. The EPA does not recognize Treasure Island as a Superfund site, despite meeting multiple criteria including the known presence of radioactive materials and other hazardous and toxic waste. This inquiry is acutely significant to Treasure Island, but as remediation and reuse of Superfund sites becomes commonplace, we must understand the effects these locations have on the populace, and whether or not we are truly getting to the heart of the problem.

Aerial photo of Treasure Island (Biello 2008)

Aerial photo of Treasure Island (Biello 2008)

Historical Background

The genealogy of Treasure Island marks various microcosmic layers of the world’s fantasies. The allegory of fantasy began with the naming of the island, after Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Treasure Island. The artificial island was constructed in 1936 and 1937, for the 1939 World Fair, to permanently serve as an airport for the then new trans-Pacific clipper boats.

1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island

1939 Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island

According to the Federal Writers’ Project (1938), a wall formation made of 287,000 tons of quarried rock was laid north of Yerba Buena Island and filled with dredge from the bay. The construction’s purpose itself reflects an Imperial, fantastical ideal for the island’s utility, which later came to exhibit exoticism and orientalism at the World Fair. Botanists blanketed the island with exotic foliage amounting to 4,000 trees, 70,000 shrubs, and 700,000 flowering plants that were watered through a pipeline from San Francisco over the newly constructed Bay Bridge (Federal Writers’ Project 1938:1).

“With federal aid were commenced three permanent structures that later will serve the airport—the $800,000 administration building and the two $400,000 steel and concrete hangars, each 335 feet long and 78 feet high, used temporarily to house the $20,000,000 art exhibits and the foreign treasures loaned for the Fair. Finally, around these structures, began to rise a $50,000,000 fantasy — America’s World Fair on the Pacific” (Federal Writers’ Project 1938:1)

“In 1938 and 1939, when Treasure Island was a magical island city of towers, pyramids and temples, [the art sculptures] were seen by millions of people who came to share in Treasure Island's spectacular celebration of the peoples and cultures of the Pacific” (Schnoebelen 1991:1). The fantastical site of the 1939 World Fair Exposition was romantic, beautiful, and modernized, yet it descended from the Euro-colonial tradition of wonder and excess, that displayed artifacts from “the other” mysterious and monstrous parts of the world. The U.S. military assumed Treasure Island at the onset of World War II, reflecting the new societal reality of men and their guns. As the world became militarized and Americans participated abroad and domestically in the war effort, Treasure Island once again transformed to reflect the psychological medium of the country and conformed to militarization. Quickly thereafter, the nuclear era of the late 1940s and 1950s evolved the climate of the island once again. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the nuclear weapons test series in the South Pacific, and the nuclear arms race of the Cold War all signified the onset of the nuclear age. Treasure Island is tied to this history because it hosted de-commissioned ships from nuclear weapons testing, leaving long-lasting geographical scars.

The product of a lineage of the Eurocentric World Fair, militarization, and then a nuclear reality, Treasure Island is now being overhauled to embody a modern, yet mythical ideal of environmental sustainability against the backdrop of nuclear remediation. The concept of sustainability is not a mythical ideal, but the reality of its implementation on a radioactively contaminated site is problematic. After almost a century of repeatedly conforming the island for transitioning purposes, the contaminated site now houses low-income families, and is slated to become a fantasy eco-village. To holistically understand the future of an eco-village on Treasure Island, we must accept that the elements of the World Fair, World War II, and nuclear legacies linger and affect both the contemporary ideals of remediation, and the physical realities of development.

Observations from the Ground

Treasure Island is nestled below the ceaselessly humming Bay Bridge, and rests at the feet of California’s darling: San Francisco. The island itself is an isolated, eerily quiet, and sleepy place with a pervasive remoteness. The entrance has an artistic appeal with a 40-foot sculpture of a nude, dancing woman that was installed under the TIDA public art policy, perhaps as an attempt to reminisce the Expo days. The sculpture is erected on an oceanfront grassy enclave that hosts a weekly flea market, and an annual music festival, which attracts thousands of Bay Area residents. Inside the TIDA building is a vibrant mural, completed in 1976, stretching 251 feet wide, and 26 feet high, that depicts the U.S. Navy’s history in the Pacific. This collision of art and war- with embedded political messages- can be found in various parts of the island, both in the form of murals like this one, and in others like street art.

On the northwest corner of the island, there is a park where I found two women conversing as their small dogs bickered in the grass. Alongside the park, a bike lane hugs the shallow cliff made of rocks until it runs into a chain-link fence decorated with caution signs and radioactivity symbols. On the other side of the fence is an abandoned barracks-style housing section, while the houses next door are occupied. The divide between the habitable and uninhabitable runs down 12th street and extends from Avenue of the Palms at the water’s edge of Avenue B. There is a similar divide on the opposite side where more people live at Mason Court and Gateview Avenue.

A recreational area that houses the Treasure Island Boys and Girls Clubhouse lies a few blocks east on Avenue E, and 13th street. Across from the club is the Gaelic Athletic Association Field A; many of the surrounding Bay Area schools bus children of all age groups here for soccer, baseball, and lacrosse competitions. Across the street from the Boys and Girls Club is a remediation area with radioactivity warning signs hanging from the chain-link fence. Black plastic weighed down by hay bales blankets the site in its entirety, covering radiological matter. In some places the plastic is worn and mottled with holes. In others the plastic rises and flaps in the wind the island is notorious for.

At the Boys and Girls club, children are heard laughing and playing. Geiger counter readings are elevated slightly at about 23 counts-per-minute (CPM), where a 16 CPM reading would be natural. Geiger counter measurements can vary due to wind, angle of the device, and other variables, thus soil samples are needed to properly assess the contamination levels of this site. The Boys and Girls Club was closed in August of 2012 because radioactive particles were found to have blown onto the playground.

The southeast section of the island is fenced off with chain-link fencing and, again, radioactivity warning signs. There are remediation bins and heavy machinery behind the fence, and a 50-gallon metal drum for disposal of contaminated work clothes, with a pair of boots slumped beside it. The Bay Bridge hovers in the skyline and the water can be seen and heard. An unmarked patrol car drove by at a crawling speed but did not find me, with a Geiger counter pressed against the gutter outside the fence to be a concern, and continued down Avenue H.

Each time I visit the island, I find that the fencing, with its warning signs, has been taken down and erected elsewhere. It seems as though a game of remedial musical chairs is in motion, though I never see anyone at work behind these fences.


The Navy

The U.S. Navy acquired Treasure Island in 1942 on the grounds that there existed a war emergency. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 American nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands, part of Micronesia in the South Pacific (Republic of the Marshall Islands 2005). “Because of the geographic isolation of the Marshall Islands, the United States could conduct its scientific studies of the effects of the weapons tests in secret, without the scrutiny of the American public or the international community” (Johnston 2007: 219). Through these tests that began with Operation Crossroads in 1946, Marshallese Islanders, uninformed of the consequences of nuclear blasts, were exposed to and severely poisoned by the radioactive fallout. The physical ramifications of the fallout on indigenous people included horrific birth abnormalities, cancers, retardation, thyroid disorders, and consequently suicides. Before contact with Spanish colonialists and then the U.S. military, the Marshallese lived off the land for 3,600 years (Barker 2012:18), and despite the fact that their home became radioactively contaminated, the U.S. government detained them there for use as human test subjects (Johnston 2007:25).

The ships that were not sunk in the atomic blasts were towed to Hawaii, Japan, and the San Francisco Bay for decontamination (Dept. of the Navy 1991). Because some particles in nuclear isotopes have a half-life upward of 100,000 years, the word “decontamination” itself is misleading, and despite on-going remediation Treasure Island remains contaminated. Current practices of radioactive waste disposal involve relocation to places such as Nevada, the bottom of the ocean1 and various third-world countries (Cohen 2010, Ted 2000) where it will more than likely outlive the inhabitants. Dumping nuclear waste into the environment is an externality, or an unrecognized consequence, of nuclear weapons and power that is not accounted for in calculation of risk and management. Therefore, companies and agencies that produce these by- products are not held accountable for safe, documented relocation of the waste. This is assuming there is a safe way to relocate and store hazardous waste, as the world continues to wait for technologies to be invented that will enable humans to safely dispose of nuclear waste. To reiterate, disposal of nuclear waste is not removal, rather it is relocation, and this must be recognized while contemplating the realities of remediation.

Similar to the Marshall Islands, Treasure Island is geographically secluded, and while serving as a military base it was partitioned from public scrutiny. Health records of soldiers whom participated in Operation Crossroads and other South Pacific and American Southwest nuclear experiments would be valuable for a further analysis of exposure to fallout and the ways in which it travels to other locations via the human body. The current lack of documentation serves as a silencing mechanism, and as the generation effected by early nuclear experimentation ages, we lose access to a wealth of knowledge pertaining to the effects of nuclear exposure on the human body.

Like the South Pacific, the nuclear history of Treasure Island has largely been erased, as the Navy literally works to wash their hands of the past by sprinting through remediation. The U.S. military has a historical tendency of abandoning assets either through de-classification, justification, or selling their assets. The U.S. Navy orphaned Treasure Island in the 1990s, but the landscape continues to project its militarized fantasy with paraphernalia scattered across the island including anchors, tanks, sunken ships, barracks, and contaminated air, soil, and groundwater. In 2011, the Navy sold the island back to the city of San Francisco for $108 million dollars as part of the urban redevelopment project, but the reality is that a nuclear past cannot be sold into obscurity.

Questioning whether or not Navy administrators believe remediation is possible quickly shows their planned obsolescence and secrecy. The initial lack of prevention of pollution- inherent in nuclear weapons testing- has demanded that the Navy find ways to skirt the acknowledgment of nuclear realities. This has harsh implications for the people whom currently inhabit the island. An August 2012 publication of The Bay Citizen documented that the United States has set “safe” human radiation exposure limits below 100 millirems (1 millisievert) per year, but “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found four locations on Treasure Island where a person could be exposed to 4,380,000 millirems if they spent all year there” (Smith & Mieszkowski 2012:1). The Department of Public Health demanded more testing of the island because the Navy, responsible for “decontaminating” the island, provided inaccurate sample results.

Thorough remediation of Treasure Island would cost $800 million dollars, eight times the federal budget for federal Superfund mitigation (Smith & Mieszkowski 2012:1). In addition to financial difficulties the Navy faces, acknowledgment of known contamination and lack of legitimate remediation could potentially compromise their alleged ethical standards. To mediate complaints about inaccuracy and keep them off the record, Navy cleanup manager David Clark explained to a California state toxics official that “it would be better if health officials only expressed their concerns verbally during meetings” (Smith & Mieszkowski 2012:1). The Navy’s ethical practice that surfaces through their remediation work appears to be one of self- preservation, while the political will propelling the Navy to remediate the island is the need to purge a larger nuclear history. The sale of Treasure Island to the city of San Francisco enables the Navy to talk about its involvement in the South Pacific and Treasure Island as though it were in the past, which serves to obscure 50-year old sins that continue to linger.


When used by developers, the word “remediation” is applied to contaminated housing, soil, ground water, air, and eroding industrial infrastructures. These issues are some of the difficulties the Navy and the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) must reflect on and attend to in order to change the presentation of the island from a radioactive site into an eco-village.

TIDA is future-oriented, which is short-sited and unevenly focused on development rather than remediation of Treasure Island. TIDA is working with a narrow scope and defined needs that are situated around the completion of their development project. Their website boasts of the development plans in easy-access drop-down menus, but the contamination and remediation data is buried in community outreach meeting minutes and archive links. Under the development link on the homepage of the TIDA website they list and illustrate the proposed housing and urban design schema:

The project will produce a new district of up to 8,000 homes, 25% of which will be offered at below-market rates, extensive open spaces, three hotels, restaurants, retail, and entertainment venues within San Francisco. The project’s design draws heavily upon the natural setting and features of the islands – sun, wind, views both of and from the islands, shore lines, topography, soils, habitat, and vegetation – and features intentional contrasts that will add interest for all who live on or visit the islands (City and County of San Francisco 2000-2013).

Digital illustration of proposed Treasure Island Development Project (City and County of SF 2000-2013)

Digital illustration of proposed Treasure Island Development Project (City and County of SF 2000-2013)

 These “natural” geological settings of the island are quite literally garbage- the infrastructure of the artificial island was built out of landfill. Treasure Island’s lack of structural integrity is visible through the increasing presence of sinkholes- symptoms of another geographical danger- that liter the island. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, research has shown that Treasure Island, with its artificial infrastructure made of soft clay, sand, rock, and dredge, is a seismic hazard (Ferritto 1992:1-2). In the event of a large earthquake, Treasure Island, situated between the Hayward and San Andreas Fault lines, is vulnerable to liquefaction of cohesionless waterfront deposits, the process through which a solid state is turned to a liquid state after a structure’s pore pressure is increased on a low stress resistance area (Rauch 1997:7). Put simply, in the event of a large earthquake, the waterfront site that Treasure Island rests on would transform from a solid landscape to a liquefied state, likely causing that which sits upon it to concave. Therefore, to ensure the safety of 8,000 homes, three high-rise hotels, entertainment venues, and the thousands of people expected to dwell within them, the foundational base of this site will also require structural and remedial attention.

Although a large part of the Treasure Island Development project includes remediation, the title: “Treasure Island Development Authority” reflects the goal of “development” but excludes their equally important responsibility of remediation. Through ethnographic interviews with TIDA Director of Development Robert Beck, the developers’ ethical practice through which they respond to these difficulties appears to be volitional. When Beck was asked how long the preparation for this eco-village and proceeding development was estimated to take, he responded, “I'm anxious to get it started cause (sic), here we are in 2013, and it's designated for closure 20 years ago in 1993, so it’s a, it’s been a long time coming.” The primary goal for TIDA is development, which either indicates they believe remediation is possible- that it is progress- or that what needs remediation are nuclear, seismic, and hazardous contamination fears and concerns- things aside from the physical medium.

Although making no mention of remedial tasks or responsibilities when asked what was delaying development plans, Beck responded, “There is a challenge that's supposed to be heard, the court date is probably gonna (sic) be the early part of next year... in which case that would be the last hurdle to any development. I think from the investment perspective, they want to have all that behind them.” In the case of Beck and TIDA, their ethical practices can be understood by looking at this response to a court challenge. Beck describes it as a last “hurdle,” something to jump over, to leave behind and never return to. He also emphasizes the investment perspective, which narrowly strives to generate revenue. This interview-conducted in the second week of Beck’s employment in his position- illuminated the limitations of vocabulary and content imposed on the TIDA staff. His emphasis on “getting the project started,” demonstrated the volition behind his task of developing the island, which did not involve prioritizing further analysis of tests for potential contamination. I do not get the impression that he lacks concern or empathy for the residents, rather that these aspects of remediation are not within his job description. It could be argued that third-party agencies like TIDA do not protect people from harm because as they are market-driven. A larger part of the problem is that polluters are not held accountable legally, socially, ethically, or financially for the externalities of their actions, which perhaps explains why industrial contamination poisoning is a reoccurring problem.

The political will for developers to remediate the island is inexorably linked with the desire to construct yet another Treasure Island fantasy: a high-rise eco-village. Sustainability is in fashion and has consequently created a market for “green living.” Filmmaker Bill Nichols explained that the inverse of fantasy is desire (Nichols 1991;107). This desire has created a conflict of interest in the chain of command that oversees remediation and development. The Navy and the EPA are responsible for remediation; TIDA, the Department of Public Health, and the city of San Francisco oversee that work, but they are incentivized to develop. Third party verifications that claim the cleanup was successful are debatable; making the perspective of Treasure Island residents requisite to the conversation.



For residents, the word “remediation” applies to the homes, parks, air, water, and even bodies that have been impacted by the contamination on Treasure Island. “First hand accounts by people living with radiation are an important part of any serious argument against the use of nuclear power and weaponry. They reveal the kinds of scars left on individuals, families, and communities that do not show up in statistical surveys” (Hiesinger 2002:87). For the residents, remediation is not something to be rushed through because it is of corporeal, psychological, emotional, economic, and social importance.

Elizabeth Kallgren* is a nine-year Treasure Island resident who opened her home to me to discuss her experiences living on the island. She lives on Bayside Drive with her husband, three children ages 17, 15, and 13, and their English bulldog, Rocks*. Their barracks-style home is identical to their neighbors, yet inviting and comfortable. Her kitchen cupboards are painted black and used for jotting notes in colorful chalk, including one from a neighbor that reads, “I love you Elizabeth.” We met in her dining room, converted into an office space for the Treasure Island Health Network, a grass-roots organization, which she co-founded and serves in as President.

Elizabeth began experiencing various health problems after three to four years of residency. Her husband suffered congestive heart failure one week after landscaping the backyard; she and 8 women within a 5-block radius underwent emergency gall-bladder surgery; her 17-year-old son, Weston*, and 15-year-old daughter, Avery* began experiencing skin, respiratory, and neurological problems; and her 13-year-old daughter, Mazzie* was diagnosed with Lupus-like-symptoms and ovarian cancer after seven years of residency when she was 11- years-old. In our most recent conversation, during November of 2013, Elizabeth explained that her older daughter, Avery was experiencing new health problems.

Avery started having serious issues. Her hair is falling out and she is losing sensation in her hips. On a good note though, Mazzie’s metal levels came back higher than normal, but in the normal range. A few weeks ago Avery called me frantically; she didn’t know where she was. I tracked her on the phone, and she was at Baker and Eddie in the Tenderloin area. She was lost so I had to go get her. I told her to wait inside a coffee shop or a McDonalds, and she said, ‘Mom I can’t walk. I’m on the curb.’ So I had an ambulance pick her up and take her to the ER. She is 15; she’ll be 16 in January. She had a thick head of hair, but now she has no hair. We upped her B-vitamins and she’s taking fish oil even though she’s a vegan. And TIDA is telling me lies. She’s a 15-year- old girl, and she’s beautiful, losing her hair. Both her and Mazzies hormone, thyroid issues are on the hypo-production, its odd. It looks like it’s an immune thing in both the girls. Then we find out, they dug up Gateview, and found shards of radioactive material in people’s yards in nine locations- two are actual driveways. This is a huge health risk for children and animals.

The health problems Elizabeth and her young family have faced were difficult to confront, but they decided to start talking about them. The community in Treasure Island is tightly cohesive because they interact with their neighbors at barbecues, sporting events, community meetings and other gatherings. These interactions are the primary forum where neighbors engage in conversations that reveal congruencies in health concerns. Elizabeth explained:

I think it’s water related, about eight women had emergency gall bladder surgery in a five block radius; all ages, all ethnicities, different diet, no common factors but water, soil, and air. I’m one of the women. When I started talking about it, women said, ‘Oh, I had mine a year and a half ago.’ Over a four-year span, quite a few of us had the exact same surgery. I could see if we shared commonalities, but ages 30-55 are a big range. These are just some small things that have come up. We have a lot of cancer cases. Parents are intimidated by the housing providers and they don’t speak up. Some have language barrier issues, and unfortunately it falls on children’s backs to interpret for their non- English speaking parents.

In this dialogue Elizabeth raises the issue of language barriers on Treasure Island, which is home to Spanish, Farsi, Chinese, Russian, and Bulgarian speakers who do not benefit from the TIDA notifications, written in English. On this point Elizabeth said to me, “I have a problem talking with children about how their parents are ill. We desperately need translation, Treasure Island Health Network is working on a website.” Aside from personal health discussions, non-English speakers are also excluded from community meetings that do not offer translation unless it is requested 72 hours in advance. Often times, the community meetings are not confirmed before 72 hours, which creates barriers to following the 72-hour stipulation. This practice is in violation of the Brown Act, which requires that an agenda be posted in a public place within 72 hours in order for any business to be considered valid.

I returned to Avenue of the Palms to walk the divide between the inhabited barracks of Mason Court and the abandoned, fenced off contamination zones. On my right was a radioactive heap of dirt covered with the familiar black plastic and hay bale technology, and to my left was a back yard, furnished with bikes and a barbecue pit. I walked along the side of the house to the front yard where I encountered two young men fixing a shed door. I said hello and in thick Russian accents they introduced themselves as Michael* and Aleksi*. I asked them how they felt about the fenced off area in their back yard to which they replied, “We got a letter from TIDA and they said it was safe.” I asked if they still had the letter, “Yes,” they said pointing at the garbage bin beside the shed. “It’s in there.” I asked if I could look, and together we began digging through the garbage for a letter from TIDA. Unable to find the letter, I realized I would have to look elsewhere. We exchanged goodbyes and Aleksi informed me that there were “lots of good Russian boys on the island that wanted to get married,” in case I was interested.

In hopes of obtaining a copy of the TIDA letter that was sent out to residents, I traveled to the Treasure Island Villages leasing company who rent market-rate housing on the island. I spoke with Leasing Specialist Annie Wu about their rentals, and pressed her for answers regarding the longevity of a potential housing contract in light of the island’s makeover. She said there was no guarantee housing would be provided after the completion of the development project, so the leases were month-to-month. This is another lease addendum current residents were coerced to sign that changed long-term rentals to month-to-month contracts. The reality is that Treasure Island began as an attraction for visitors, was repurposed as a military base that provided temporary housing for military families, and is now home to trade schools and month- to-month leaseholders. This place offers little permanence, consistently manifesting transient communities. This situation empowers no one and affords no autonomy.

Wu showed me a map of the island with the available units highlighted, so I asked her why some of them were unavailable. She x-marked three units with a pencil and said, “The Navy hasn’t released them to us.” She brushed her hand across the northwest corner of the map, which is physically fenced off and boarded up, and said, “This is also unavailable right now.” After asking “why,” her tone changed and she leaned away from the map, into her chair and said as if reading from a script, “Well, Treasure Island used to be a Naval base, so there are remnants that they are still cleaning up, like radioactive material in the soil.” When asked if it affected the nearby units she replied, “Well, there’s radiation everywhere. It’s in the air. It’s blowing all around. It comes from microwaves.” “So it’s not a human health concern,” I asked. “No,” she replied. I gathered the paperwork she provided and thanked her for her help. At the front desk in the lobby I noticed the same TIDA letter my Russian informants had spoken of and grabbed a copy on my way out.

The letter was dated March 22, 2012, and although it provided no scientific data, it offered insight into the ethical practice of TIDA. The typo-riddled 3-page letter danced around rhetorical questions without offering factual information. There were no data, statistics, measurements, health-related risks or symptoms to watch for, and no measurements of radioactivity included in this letter. Instead TIDA stated their opinion that “no known concerns” were on the island at this time.

Elizabeth and I compared her first lease agreement from 2004 against a revised 2012 lease with attached addenda, to observe the evolution of legalities. We examined the terms and conditions of interacting with the landscape, in particular: digging. The original lease “suggests residents avoid digging,” but doesn’t specify a reason. The new lease addendum states that TIDA “forbids digging,” which Elizabeth refuses to sign. This change in language is more aggressive but still lacks data, and does not retroactively erase the fact that residents may have dug in their backyards in the past. Therefore, this addendum should not retroactively erase the Navy and TIDA’s failure to guarantee the safety of the island residents. Elizabeth recollected:

It was suggested you don’t dig in the garden. My dog did, my kids did, and they played on playgrounds and in the grass. No one emphasizes it, of course we didn’t think about it. I’m angry because it’s bigger than they want us to know. My husband was digging dirt in the backyard and he had congestive heart failure a week later. We are vegan, ride bikes, live very healthy lives. We almost lost my husband. Was it a coincidence that he had been fixing the backyard? Sure! But probably not. Long story short, I believe environmental issues, along with digging, in addition to how we live in high winds, shifting soil, sinkholes, and degradation of infrastructures -problems we didn’t come here with- are caused by the island.

Rocks, the bulldog, who spends a sufficient amount of time in the dirt, regularly has sores, bumps, and cuts on his feet. Other animals and pets on the island have skin and fur issues veterinary doctors are unable to diagnose. Humans also have skin issues in the form of rashes, foot fungi, and sun sensitivity.

A change of medium for Elizabeth could take several forms. She suggested that TIDA should financially support the relocation of residents, or at least open a clinic where health records could be comparatively analyzed to better understand the health impacts of the environment. Similar to the Navajo in the American Southwest, residents are denied community centers and clinics because that would be a tacit acknowledgement of contamination-related health problems that could allow for an aggregate legal backlash (Hiesinger 2002). Elizabeth expressed her opinion about relocating residents:

The Navy needs to evacuate people, and then do their work. There should be no more risk to humans and this environment, it’s unfair. A happy person will not sue; lawsuits are usually out of anger and not being able to get a solution. If you make people believe you have their best interest, have it.

Another consequence of toxicity’s presence is social alienation. Hiesinger referred to the stigmatization of people that live in a contaminated environment as being marked with a “geographic scarlet letter” (Hiesinger 2002). Elizabeth lamented, “Yerba Buena Island considers themselves a different community. The man that built his house on the rock, and everyone else is on the sand, and were all gonna (sic) die from the crime and the contamination.” The stigmatization of Treasure Island and its residents is structurally embedded. Out of concern for her family’s health, Elizabeth requested that the Department of Public Health conduct a radiological scan on her yard. Elizabeth narrated her experience with a member of the agency:

I said come in, do your radiological scan, and he said, ‘All those people making claims out here have been 4 pack-a-day smoking, drug addicts, crack-heads.’ I told him ‘Get the hell out of my yard, my 12-year-old hasn’t done any of those things. If you think you’re out here doing an unbiased study, you’re full of shit.’

We want to get the word out so people understand what they’re dealing with and can make their own decisions. I’m not telling you to hate, you have to fight for the bottom line. Break down the language so the average person can understand it and make their own health decisions. This applies to food, smoking, anything.

Examples like these reveal stigmas of prejudice imposed on Treasure Island residents, but stereotypes also manifest in the residents internally. To make light of a dark reality, Elizabeth often makes jokes that reveal a nuclear identity. In discussing her daughter’s hair loss she said, “We’ll all be bald too. Open up a hair club!” Her beliefs in remediation also have a nuclear connotation: “They market the island green, sustainable. It’s gonna (sic) be green alright, maybe glowing!”

For Elizabeth, the political will to remediate her community and the health of the people, is largely propelled by the fact that she is a mother. When her family and neighbors began experiencing health threats, Elizabeth’s ethical practice involved patience and perseverance, resulting in the development of community outreach through the Treasure Island Health Network. Elizabeth created a database, which she has mostly committed to memory, where people who have moved off the island can input their health conditions. She noted that common complaints include:

Birth defects, difficulty having birth, lung issues, rheumatologic issues (bulked into one label because of skin involvement, skin, rashes) these symptoms are with unknown cause. Rheumatology is vague and rarely has markers that are exact. It could also be mimicking something else. It’s a weird stage for people to play on with disease.

Future research should be dedicated to contacting military families and their children who lived on Treasure Island while it was an operating military base and their progeny, to better understand the relationship of the environment and human health. Whether or not Treasure Island can be remediated remains an open question for Elizabeth, but her utopian future is to remediate the health of herself, her family, and the people in her community.

An Ethnographic Vignette: The Bomb Scare and Abandonment

Around 1pm on Friday July 26, 2013, access to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and consequent Treasure Island entry and exit privileges were revoked due to a bomb threat. On the opposite coast of the island, Elizabeth and I walked along the pathway that hugs the waterfront perimeter as she explained the reasons why, in the face of clear toxicity, Treasure Island residents believe it is worth fighting to make the island safe for human habitation.

Through this conversation I began to recognize the island’s positive qualities: social solidarity among the community, affordable Bay Area housing, and the provocative beauty inherent in oceanfront views corralled by two prominent bridges and the pulsing San Francisco skyline. Elizabeth described the neighborhood as a “ghetto with beachfront views,” as we rounded the northeastern corner that revealed dilapidated, uninhabited barracks identical to the one she calls home. We spotted two red rescue helicopters hovering over the water and speculated the reason for their presence. We walked through high winds alongside choppy waters in retreat to the house; upon our return the phone was ringing. Elizabeth’s neighbor called to say the bridge was closed, and for an unknown reason no one could enter or leave the island. Elizabeth hung up the phone and asked, “Do you want to go for a bike ride?”

By the time we arrived at Clipper Cove beneath the Bay Bridge, a handful of people had gathered to view the cluster of helicopters circling Yerba Buena Island, which connects the bridge to Treasure Island. We approached two women: one, a worker for an island winery, one a resident. I asked them what was happening on the bridge, to which they replied, “There is a bomb threat. No one can get on or off the island.” I felt a pang of dread as I looked back at the empty bridge. The only road off the island was barricaded by police officers perched outside their sideways-parked patrol cars. It wasn’t the idea of a bomb exploding that gave me a sense of doom; it was the claustrophobic reality of becoming stranded on this small, 0.901 square mile island. In this moment, in some small way, I was given empathy for the feeling of abandonment Treasure Island residents experience because their health and safety concerns are muted.

The structure of the island is one of quarantine that imposes specific psychological ramifications. “I’m glad you are here to see what we deal with,” Elizabeth said. “There’s no ferry system, and there’s no way to get off the island in an emergency. How can you feel empowered as a community when you’re at the mercy of public officials?” There is a small pier off the west side of the island that was once used to ferry members of the Navy to and from San Francisco. Now it is fenced off, forgotten, and falling apart, like many of the people and remaining structures on this island.

This period of quarantine executed by the “people in charge,” was a microcosm of the internal colonization of Treasure Island residents, whom are regularly forced to confront health and safety threats alone. Although Treasure Island residents are not members of the armed service, their bodies seem to be treated as though they are disposable. Through this event, it became evident that the city of San Francisco was neither prepared to inform Treasure Island residents about the shutdown of their neighborhood as it was unfolding, nor equipped to ensure and respond to their safety in this temporary emergency. This isolated incident is part of the broader concern that the U.S. Navy, the TIDA, the EPA, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the city of San Francisco lack transparency and urgency in addressing the larger, ongoing risks this remediation project poses to the livelihoods of American citizens.



My research and fieldwork reveal three major themes: in light of the development of an eco- village, nuclear realities are situated differently by different stakeholders; the belief that remediation of Treasure Island is possible is produced and practiced in different ways; and lastly, the political will to remediate the contamination on the island is propelled by narrow needs from different parties. To analyze and discuss these three themes, I have extensively drawn on Paul Rabinow’s definition of “remediation,” but I will additionally access some conceptual tools from political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy, anthropologist Laura Nader, and Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island.

In the development of an eco-village, different stakeholders situate nuclear realities differently. The U.S. Navy is focused on severing ties with Treasure Island all together. Developers such as TIDA director Robert Beck, have an ethical practice that is focused on the narrow scope of investment and development. Return-based economic decisions are primarily reliant on “investment” and “return,” or in this instance, “remediation” versus “development.” Economically, a low-level investment can yield a higher return if the projected rate of return is somewhat fixed, for example dollars for rent versus cost to save lives. For residents, such as Elizabeth, ethical practice is intimately situated in the social and corporeal aspects of the community. Ashis Nandy wrote, “In the name of science and development one can today demand enormous sacrifices from, and inflict immense sufferings on, the ordinary citizen” (Nandy1988:1). Sacrifice, however, is not always done willingly or knowingly, nor is it reserved for adults. Elizabeth’s two young daughters recently came forward with a secret they kept from he. They had been collecting objects from around the island they found and/or dug up, and kept their treasures in a container that went missing in their bedroom. Elizabeth lamented:

It’s super disturbing. My daughters have little coins, buttons, and things like that in a treasure chest somewhere in their room. They didn’t tell me because they were kids. They were seven, eight, and nine, and we homeschooled, so they had a lot of opportunity to explore. I’m devastated, I’m praying that when I find the box I can find someone to do a quick reading. It would explain a lot of physical problems my girls have had.

It seems as though Treasure Island has become something Valerie Kuletz (1998) calls a “national sacrifice zone.” It is a place where children- like their parents- are asked to sacrifice normal lifestyles, like playing with toys, exploring their surroundings, and collecting buried treasure. Elizabeth’s girls have grown and become aware of the health sacrifices they have made to a cause unknown; they asked their mother to move off the island because they are scared of what is happening to their bodies. Elizabeth confided in me, “I’m not laid back about it, but I’m pretty resolved that whatever has happened, I can’t really do anything about it Taryn. I can make them pay for it; I can fight back; but I don’t really know.” Nandy’s analysis of development and sacrifice lucidly illuminates the juxtaposed needs of Treasure Island developers, which is to develop a city, and residents who have sacrificed their bodies and continue to struggle for control over their health. The story of two young girls searching for and finding buried treasure parallels the story of developers searching for and finding a place to build a fantasy.

To address my second point on production and practice of the belief that remediation is possible, I lean on Nader’s analysis of “mindsets” (Nader 2010:6) to address the developers in particular. The Treasure Island developers demonstrate they believe remediation is achieved by forging ahead with development plans, an act estranged from the needs of human and environmental health. On an afternoon walk, Elizabeth pointed to a tree in her back yard and said, “It was a baby when we moved here nine years ago. Do you see how it has grown in one direction? That’s because the winds only blow one way, east, toward Oakland and Berkeley, along with the uncontained radioactive dust particles.” 

Being situated in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island is notorious for its high winds. Although remediation of the community and her family’s health is Elizabeth’s main ethical practice, this statement alludes to the possibility that she has in part assessed the power of radioactivity, or has at least acknowledged the difficulty inherent in remediation of invisible particles.

When I questioned Beck about the possibility of radioactive particles leaving the island that either blow east in the wind or seep through groundwater or storm drains into the bay, he replied, “I am unaware of that happening.” His ethical practice is compartmentalized into the task of producing an eco-village, so he does not address issues that fall outside of his job description, such as the spread of contamination. His main goal is development. 

Nader wrote, “Rooted in the belief that more is always better lies a system, an ideology, an expertise, a hubris, perhaps, that needs to be subjected to critical analysis, one that needs to be recognized as a controlling process that normalizes such beliefs, leading us to accept them as natural” (Nader 2010:519). The notion of progress, in this case the fantasy of an eco- village, must be critically analyzed rather than assumed to be a remedy for all parties involved.

Finally, the political will to remediate the contamination on the island is propelled by narrow scopes and needs from different parties. A dominant theme in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is the futility of desire. He depicts greed as the motivation for attaining the treasure, and portrays the satiation of desire through the crew that finds it. Stevenson polarizes this satisfaction of desire with the sense of loss experienced by the pirates whose treasure map leads them to an empty hole. Although the usage of the word remediation varies between the Treasure Island Development Authority and the residents, the desire to satisfy their individual need is starting to resemble a treasure hunt.

The gap between contamination and development is a space where ethical practices become visible. “Raymond Williams (1980) observes that ‘while the utopian transformation is social and moral, the science fiction transformation is not social and moral, but natural,’ inviting a science that is divorced from consideration of people” (Nader 1996:13). Through comparative analysis of the ways in which developers and activists conceptualize contamination, remediation, and the future of Treasure Island, I have tried to generate a more holistic picture that transcends specialized, divided, and narrow views. Holism is especially important in addressing issues of nuclear contamination because invisible radioactivity has no barriers; it travels through human trade, human bodies, winds, rains, and ocean currents throughout our interconnected planet.




1. Between 1946-1970 the Atomic Energy Commission authorized the dumping of 47,000 55 gallon steel drums filled with radioactive waste into the water by the Farallones Islands, 20 miles of the coast of San Francisco. Any drums that floated were shot and sunk. The drums are currently unaccounted for.

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