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Standing up to a big corporation in San Francisco's Hunters Point

By R.M. Arrieta New America Media | Last updated: Jul 27, 2010 - 10:57:01 AM

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In this file photo from March 4, 2009, protestors demand clean up of toxic site in Bay View Hunters Point. Christopher Muhammad, of Muhammad Mosque No. 26, has lead this fight against environmental hazards since that time. Photo: Final Call Archives/Jevedia Muhammad
SAN FRANCISCO - It's a Thursday night town hall meeting in Bayview Hunters Point. Nation of Islam student Minister Christopher Muhammad is at the helm. He's been the lead spokesman for Stop Lennar Action Movement (SLAM), a band of individuals and organizations facing off a gigantic corporation's efforts to build housing and retail space on a former naval shipyard, deemed a Superfund site.

Min. Muhammad strikes the pose of David to Lennar Corporation's Goliath as his voice thunders across the room filled with a cross-section of the neighborhood residents.

“(Lennar and the mayor) have already determined this community has to be removed,” said Min. Muhammad, leaning into his words with every inch of his 6-foot frame. “We're trying to move a mountain, not a slope, nor a mound nor even a hill. What is the mountain? Lennar, SF Redevelopment, the mayor. We're taking on what some consider impossible.”

SLAM members, a rainbow coalition of people from the Nation of Islam, Bayview residents, environmental activists, social justice organizations, church leaders, Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Latinos, and blue-collar Whites, old and young, have been meeting every single Thursday for the past three years. The loud, informed, organized, in-your-face movement maintains that Lennar's proposed 770-acre development on the waterfront site will transfer contaminated land before it is cleaned up.

Fine air pollutants, pesticides, petrochemicals, heavy metals, asbestos, radioactive materials, and more than 200 toxic chemicals and other materials can be found in the soil, water and air in the decommissioned Hunters Point naval shipyard in the Bayview district, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The former shipyard has been listed as one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the nation.

A community health assessment done in 2004 by the San Francisco Department of Public Health shows Bayview Hunters Point residents have a high rate of hospitalizations for adult and pediatric asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, uncontrolled diabetes and congestive heart failure. Ask any one of the residents there and most likely they'll know someone suffering from one or the other of these ailments.

When Lennar started excavating a hillside, heavy equipment breaking the serpentine rock in the hill released plumes of naturally occurring asbestos. Nearby residents complained of bloody noses, headaches, breathing problems, and increased incidents of asthma attacks.

SLAM is fighting against what it characterizes as the fast tracking and “dirty transfer” of the parcels of land. SLAM members say that the city is disregarding a vote in 2000 by 86,000 San Franciscans that approved Proposition P, a measure that mandates the Navy to completely clean up the shipyard to residential standards before transferring the land to the city.

SLAM wants the city to hold the Navy to its promise. They see that without that assurance, longtime residents will be driven out, and the lack of expertise in the toxic cleanup will jeopardize the health of not only Bayview Hunters Point residents, but residents in other neighborhoods as well.

Yet, June 3, after an eight-hour public hearing before a joint commission, and over the objections of a number of people, Lennar's project moved a step forward when both the planning commission and redevelopment commission officials certified a controversial 7,000-page Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Project opponents appealed the certification, and the issue was taken up by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who yesterday approved the environmental impact report. The board will make a final decision on Lennar's development in the old Hunters Point shipyard in early August.

Alex Tom of the Chinese Progressive Association told commissioners at the public hearing: “We want a full cleanup of the toxic waste. Everyone wants jobs and housing but the big question is: At what cost?”

Emily Lee, also with the Chinese Progressive Association, urged commissioners not to approve the environmental report because “it does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. This is just another toxic site being added to the existing burdens of the community. There are known carcinogens that are at levels above the acceptable human health risk. And we have seen what happens (with) corporations that assure us it's safe, right?”

Vivian Donahue, member of People Organizing to Win Employment Rights (POWER) and a 30-year Bayview resident, told commissioners at the public hearing: “My family has been affected from breathing these toxic fumes.”

Espanola Jackson, a Bayview resident for 60-plus years and affectionately known as the Mother of Bayview, said, “A lot of the people involved with SLAM — their families have been affected.”

But not everyone who came to the meeting shared those views. The Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and a former SF Supervisor, told commissioners not to be cowed down by simplistic thinking that “everyone in Bayview Hunters Point is sick because of the shipyard.”

He and other supporters of the project see it as a golden opportunity to revitalize the area, provided, of course, that Lennar makes good on its promise to provide affordable housing, jobs and job training.

SLAM and others who oppose the project are especially concerned because the environmental impact report also proposes that toxic parcels in the shipyard be capped rather than completely cleaned. Opponents say that simply follows a legacy of environmental racism.

Chemist Wilma Subra of the Technical Assistance Services for Communities, has been working with SLAM for some time now. Ms. Subra consults with communities across the country dealing with pollution issues. She has been investigating the potential human health and environmental impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency assigned Ms. Subra to evaluate the draft Bayview environmental impact report. Ms. Subra concluded that protections cited in the SF Redevelopment Agency/Lennar Environmental Impact Report, are not enough to protect residents, students and workers from the dangers of toxic materials.

But Kofi Bonner, president of Lennar's Urban Land Division in Northern California, shot back: “The developer doesn't get to tell the city, the EPA, or Bay Area Quality Management District how to oversee our work. They get to determine it for themselves. To the extent that they agree with Dr. Subra, I'm sure that they put the appropriate oversight regulations in place to be protective of human health. That is what we all want.”

For Lennar, and surely, the city's power elite, the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard located on the southeast side of San Francisco is a goldmine.

With the possibility of bay front views and 10,500 housing units, proximity to the new UCSF campus in Mission Bay, the assurance of $26 million in yearly tax revenues for the city, and the promise of jobs, the pressure is on to get the homes built and the project underway on what many see as the “last frontier” of San Francisco to be developed, as one SF planning commissioner put it.

SLAM members have never bought that. They have packed Board of Supervisors meetings and handcuffed themselves to the gates of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard with a giant “Stop Work” placard strapped to their chests. Perhaps more significantly of all, they have Lennar tied up in court in a suit on charges of asbestos poisoning.
These same ordinary people have forced city and federal officials to tour the shipyard. They've questioned the findings by local, state and federal health and environmental agencies that dismiss the concerns raised by residents as baseless.

SLAM members say they are also concerned that Lennar's development project will likely gentrify Bayview Hunters Point, one of the few working class communities left in the city. Lennar plans to sell 68 percent of the proposed housing at market value, pricing many of the neighborhood's residents out. Even as it is, since 1990, more than 45 percent of the Black population has left the city. Outside of New Orleans, it is the highest exodus of Blacks in the country.

At a recent town hall meeting, Minister Muhammad's voice carried across the room. He pointed out that neither money nor personal gain was the motive for bringing so many diverse faces together under the banner of SLAM.

“All we want,” he thundered, “is justice.”

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