Dust devils

Pub date July 31, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

A year has passed since Lennar Corp. officials admitted that subcontractor CH2M Hill failed to install batteries in dust-monitoring equipment at Parcel A, a construction site in Hunters Point Shipyard where an asbestos-laden hilltop was graded to build 1,600 condominiums (see "The Corporation That Ate San Francisco," 3/14/07).

The admission sparked a steadily growing political firestorm in Bayview–Hunters Point, further fueled by evidence that Gordon Ball, another Lennar subcontractor, for six months failed to adequately water the site to control dust and by a racially charged lawsuit in which three African American employees of Lennar allege they were subjected to discrimination and retaliation after they refused to remain silent about the dust issue. The lawsuit, set for a case management hearing Aug. 17, also claims that Ball committed fraud involving the Redevelopment Agency’s minority-hiring requirements.

Bayview–Hunters Point residents angry about the situation have found an ally in Sup. Chris Daly, who has called for a halt to construction at the site until an independent health assessment is conducted to the satisfaction of the community, including the Muhammad University of Islam School, which is adjacent to the Parcel A site and has been exposed to dust. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to consider Daly’s resolution Jul. 31, after the Guardian‘s press time.

"This issue is of such a high level of importance," Daly told us. "There’s now a mandate for progressives in San Francisco to talk about environmental justice and to take action."

Sup. Sophie Maxwell, whose district includes the shipyard, told us that she understands the concerns of Daly and the community. "But when you get down it … the dust is inconvenient, but it is not harmful in the long term," she said.

Maxwell believes the city’s Department of Public Health should have done more outreach and updates, "but it has brought the situation under control." That sentiment was echoed by the city’s environmental health director, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, who told us, "This is the first time we have implemented dust control, and this is an industry that had never been regulated. And in the end, things got better. We did our job in pushing a regulated community that grudgingly complied with our regulations."

In June, after residents complained that the dust was causing nosebleeds, headaches, and asthma, the DPH released a fact sheet that stated, "You may have heard there are reasons to worry about your health because of the construction dust generated by the redevelopment of Parcel A of the Hunters Point Shipyard. That is not true."

A July 5 informational DPH memo claims that when workers tried to do dust training and outreach at the end of June, their efforts "were significantly hindered by representatives of the Muhammad University of Islam," who allegedly disrupted training sessions, followed DPH workers, and told residents not to listen to the DPH workers.

On July 9, DPH director Mitch Katz testified at a hearing of the supervisors’ Land Use Committee that the city had imposed the highest standards possible to control dust. Katz also claimed that exposure to the dust was not toxic and that there is no proof that health problems were caused by the dust.

But at the same hearing, Nation of Islam minister Christopher Muhammad demanded testing "by people the community can trust," and he accused the city of "environmental racism." Noting that asbestos-related diseases often don’t manifest themselves for at least 20 years, Muhammad claimed, "The problem that we’re seeing in Bayview–Hunters Point is dust related."

After the DPH abandoned plans to do door-to-door outreach in favor of a series of health fairs, a coalition of activists calling itself POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), some wearing masks and hazmat suits, closed down a July 17 homeownership seminar at Lennar’s shipyard trailer.

"Some folks did a picket outside, while inside, folks who own homes or live in public housing in the area were asking a lot of questions," POWER’s Alicia Schwartz told us. "We are for development that prioritizes the needs of low-income communities of color who have long been absent from the decision-making process, not development that puts the health and safety of families and the elderly at risk."

Two days later Marcia Rosen resigned as executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. SFRA board member London Breed told us that the resignation was "a long time coming" and said she wished Rosen had taken a stronger stand on Lennar and Ball in the winter of 2006.

Breed says the agency "will always be a bad word to African Americans because of what happened in the Western Addition…. But we have a great opportunity in Bayview–Hunters Point to make it into something wonderful for the community."

Maxwell, whose grandson attended the Muhammad school’s Third Street campus, wonders why the minister refuses to move his students back to Third Street. "Lennar understands that this has become a PR nightmare and they are going to have to get contractors who are supportive of and understand the rules and regulations," said Maxwell, who is about to introduce legislation that she hopes will better control construction dust citywide.

Meanwhile, Dr. Arelious Walker of the True Hope Church of God in Christ told us that he and a group of like-minded pastors have formed the African American Revitalization Consortium, "a highly vocal and visible group in strong opposition to the shutting down of the shipyard without scientific proof."

"We support 100 percent the notion that the dust from Parcel A does not cause any long-term health risks. The project must continue because of its economic impacts. One little group does not speak for us all," said Walker, who met with Mayor Gavin Newsom, Maxwell, and Katz on July 23.

Acknowledging that the outcry over Parcel A has raised awareness of the dust issue, Walker said, "For years in the urban community, the environment was not the issue, but now we’ve woken up." Walker and his fellow ministers rallied about 200 people at City Hall on July 24 to express support for Lennar’s development and confidence in city officials.

Yet Daly said that faith may be misplaced: "It’s going to be a struggle to deal with the construction-related impacts of Lennar’s development at the shipyard, but the issue is much bigger, and it points to the need for an alliance between progressives, the African American community, and the southeast neighborhoods." *