A gleaming, green neighborhood with stunning views of the city and the bay -- that is what city planners hope the future Treasure Island will look like. The plan for the more than 400-acre island also includes 8,000 homes, a business district, farms and open space.
"We hope that it's one of the, if not the most environmentally sustainable large development projects in the United States," says Michael Tymoff, deputy director of the Treasure Island Development Authority, the agency responsible for the $6 billion plan.
In order to make that happen, the man-made island in San Francisco Bay will have to be cleaned of 80 years of toxic waste, including asbestos, plutonium, radium, lead paint and other substances which are known to cause cancer and serious disease.
"From the city's perspective, we're not going to take the land," says Tymoff. "We don't want to receive the land until it is cleaned."
Treasure Island was created in 1936 by the federal government for the Golden Gate International Exposition. The southern part of the island served as an airport for the China Clipper, the world's first commercial transatlantic air service. Eventually, the Navy took over and stayed until 1997. It is now responsible for the clean-up. The work is overseen by the state Department of Toxic Substances. The Navy started its initial clean-up in the early 1990s and it is expected to be completed by 2016.
"The department of toxics works on every step with both the Navy and the city to ensure that the site will be safe for the proposed use," says Stewart Black, assistant deputy director for the DTSC.
The dirtiest site on the island is comprised of 10 acres directly under housing built by the military. Radiological debris was dumped there. That includes buttons handed out at the exposition that were coated in low levels of radium to make them glow.
"As part of dealing with the contamination here, they were going to excavate basically the first four feet all the way down to remove the debris and the chemicals, and that's where they found the radium buttons," says Barbara Cook with the DTSC.
The housing will have to be demolished before the clean-up can be completed. Other buildings that are slated to be torn down have to undergo extensive cleaning first.
"This was a building that was used in the early 1950s for radiation training," says Cook.
DTSC is making sure no radiological waste remains.
"What we are doing now is going backa nd looking at the building in its entirety to make sure it's been cleaned up to today's standards," says Cook.
It will take a couple weeks to scrub the building, then a day or two to tear it down. But there are more issues. Decades of cleaning and pressing Navy uniforms led to a major release of potentially harmful chemicals.
"They operated a dry cleaning operation here and the historical practices of dry cleaning operations were that when you were done with the chemicals you just kind of threw it out the back door," explains Cook.
Most of the mess has already been cleaned up. The city says roughly two-thirds of the toxic sites on the island have been cleaned to safe levels.
Environmental activists worry about the speed at which the process is going forward.
"Can they clean it up? Yeah. It happens all the time," says Saul Bloom of Arc Ecology. "Will they clean it up? That's a whole other matter."
Arc Ecology and Baykeeper sued the Navy in the late 90s to force it to clean up oil pollution on the island.
"Clean up these days, by federal standards, because of the lack of money in the federal government, often times represents cutting off the exposure pathway to the public to pollutants rather than the actual clean-up of the removal of the pollutants," says Bloom.
Under its agreement with the city, the Navy will only turn over land to San Francisco as it is cleared by the DTSC as cleaned and safe. Only then will the city begin its ambitious redevelopment plan.
"We're happy. We think that the Navy is doing everything they can to expedite the clean-up," says Tymoff.
One the biggest issues on the island involved the removal of underground tanks containing petroleum products. The Navy has cleared most of those sites.
They hope to break ground on the new neighborhood in late 2011 or early 2012.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel