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For these Black Bayview-Hunters Point residents, repairs include protecting against growing and toxic contamination

San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes Bayview-Hunters Point, requested a hearing on the jury report. But his office declined repeated interview requests. In an emailed statement, he said he was aware of the long-standing issue of radioactive contamination and was working with all agencies involved in the cleanup.

But he acknowledged that “the effect of rising sea levels and rising groundwater has not been studied” for the Hunters Point Superfund site.

Harrison held a rally in June outside City Hall to highlight the findings. Dressed in a bright purple shirt with “CAN WE LIVE” printed on the front and speaking into a megaphone, she said the city needed to prepare Bayview-Hunters Point for the effects of rising sea levels.

“I want to invite our mayor, whom we love, to show us that she loves us back,” she said.

She said repairs are needed to create an equitable future for Bayview-Hunters Point and its black and brown residents who will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

Government agencies redirected black people to the neighborhood now dominated by polluting industries. As a result, residents live near toxic sites and face the life-threatening impacts of climate change.

Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai explains his map showing what contaminants are where at the Hunters Point Superfund site, during a rally February 12, 2022 at Bayview-Hunters Point. (Annelise Finney/KQED)

“We’re tired of begging for our lives,” Harrison told KQED. “I demand reparations because it is paying for crimes against humanity. You can bet your last dollar that we will need long term care.

The California Reparations Task Force is immersed in a conversation about how to make amends for the centuries of oppression endured by the descendants of slaves statewide. San Francisco’s African-American Reparations Advisory Committee is studying how the city can undo the harm its discriminatory policies have done to black property, access to schools, and the availability of health care.

Bayview-Hunters Point residents regularly attend San Francisco Advisory Committee meetings to voice their concerns. Lonnie Mason said during a January session that the city was not paying enough attention to San Francisco’s historically black neighborhood. He was born and raised in the neighborhood.

“Our health risks within the community run very deep,” he said. “It goes back a long way. We know what time it is when it comes to Hunters Point.

Repairs mean preparing for sea level rise

For longtime Bayview-Hunters Point residents like Tonia Randell, city leaders have taken too long to show they value people of color in this neighborhood, one of the most polluted parts of San Francisco, according to a state environmental scan.

“We have all the utilities here,” she said, noting that the neighborhood is home to Recology; the town’s wastewater treatment plant; and other waste treatment facilities. “We still have the dump here. Why is everything in our area? Because they don’t value us.

Maya Carrasquillo, professor at UC Berkeley says it’s not uncommon for black people to feel left out of plans to improve residents’ lives, even if they are represented by black city officials. Carrasquillo, who identifies racially as Black American and ethnically as Afro-Latina, is a professor of civil and environmental engineering specializing in environmental justice.

She says black people in power would say they stand up for all black residents, but decisions made by those in control often center communities of wealth.

“There’s still a distinct difference in how we value black and brown lives across class barriers,” she said. “When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it’s all black lives matter.”

A black woman with a turquoise shirt and her hair pulled back in a tight bun.
Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai documents the toxic load among residents of Bayview-Hunters Point. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Carrasquillo says Bayview-Hunters Point deserves the same type of investment that wealthy San Francisco neighborhoods receive. If that doesn’t happen, low-income people of color will suffer disproportionately as the world warms and the bay rises. She says San Francisco and other cities should invite people who will be most affected by rising tides to decide their own futures by including them in all aspects of climate adaptation plans. It is an act of reparation.

“What’s really at stake here are people’s lives,” she added. “We need to make sure people are not at risk of dying, if we are really saying their lives matter.”

“It set my hair on fire”

To get the attention of city leaders, residents document their health.

A map of Bayview-Hunters Point is on the wooden desk in Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai’s office. It is filled with red, blue, black, yellow and white bugs – they look like ants piled on top of a piece of food. Each pin represents a person she tested and found to have high levels of a toxic chemical in their body at that time.

“[Toxic chemicals] have no role in the human body, and there is no justification for any of them,” she said.

A map of the east side of San Francisco with groups of yellow, blue, white and red push pins.
Push pins on a map show where the elements arsenic, gadolinium, manganese and vanadium were found in tests by Bayview-Hunters Point residents. Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai performs the urine tests and correlates the results with the residents’ illnesses. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 2018, the state announced that a radioactive object was found near new condos in the community in an area that the city and many government agencies said had been cleared. For Porter Sumchai, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In 2019, she began testing residents who volunteered to have their urine tested for toxic contaminants. The 70-year-old doctor is the founder and medical director of the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation.

She has now tested and retested over 100 residents for toxic elements like lead, mercury, and arsenic, and for high levels of naturally occurring elements that people need, like iron and zinc. Porter Sumchai said she recently tested a woman in her 40s and found uranium at dangerously high levels.

“It set my hair on fire,” she said. “I had never seen anything like it.”

Harrison was tested in 2021. Porter Sumchai found cadmium, copper, manganese and other contaminants in her body at levels she described as “very dangerous”. Contaminants could damage the brain, heart, kidneys, liver and lungs.

“I’m retaining fluids, I have muscle tightness, tingling in my feet and my hair is falling out of my head like a cancer patient,” she said, showing test results on her laptop. desk. “It doesn’t look like it because my wig is really cute.”

That day, she wore long black braids.

San Francisco Department of Public Health officials told KQED in an emailed statement that the agency is “committed to protecting and promoting the health of residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood,” but does not wouldn’t comment directly on Porter Sumchai’s tests, saying the agency didn’t have a “subject matter expert.” They reported their comments to state health officials.

Ariiann Harrison’s test results for the toxic elements her body is carrying are displayed on her computer in the Bayview on March 2, 2022. Bright red bars show elevated levels of lead, mercury, cadmium and thallium, between others. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The California Department of Public Health told KQED in an email that it was “aware” of community testing, but “did not directly receive any test results from these samples.”

The city conducted a community health survey in 2006 which found that “cancer is a major cause of years of life lost at Bayview Hunters Point” and that “African American women and men have the highest death rates of any other racial/ethnic group for several major cancers. But the city has not investigated whether toxic contamination buried at the shipyard is contributing to health problems.

Dr. Timur Durrani, a UCSF doctor who is not involved in Porter Sumchai’s effort, said the tests are cause for a larger investigation.

Durrani, which provides care for severely poisoned patients at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, warned that to understand the full extent of the problem, a comprehensive exposure and community assessment is needed.

“What it sounds like is the community wants to be heard,” he said.

Porter Sumchai submits his cancer and toxic contamination data to the California Cancer Registry. She is compiling her own – the Hunters Point Community Toxic Registry – and hopes to gather enough evidence documenting a relationship between disease and toxic exposure to use in a structured legal settlement.

“The more evidence we collect, the more pins we put on this map,” she said. “I think ultimately there will be a recovery for this community. It’s just in the stars.

But any recovery takes hard work. Porter Sumchai and Harrison’s work is practical, methodical and deliberate. Climate change adds extreme urgency to their effort.

At the June protest on the steps of City Hall, Harrison invited Porter Sumchai to talk about his findings. Rallying the crowd, she called her “a woman who has been fighting since day one. I like to call her my second mother.

“The people of Bayview-Hunters Point are being treated like canaries in the coal mine for an impending disaster that will affect the entire city,” Porter Sumchai said.

The residents of Bayview-Hunters Point face a life-or-death crisis, she said, but she vowed to fight on, even if city leaders fail to act.

Then she quoted Marie Harrison.

“We will never surrender,” she said.

KQED’s Annelise Finney contributed reporting for this story.