Margaret Billsborough has survived unspeakable traumas: childhood abuse, wrenching poverty, homelessness, and crack-cocaine addiction. So when she, and many other vulnerable people like her, were given the opportunity to move into an apartment on San Francisco's Treasure Island, it seemed like a dream come true. Here, she thought, was a quiet, idyllic refuge where she could begin to heal.
What she didn't know at the time was that the former Naval base was strewn with radioactive waste. She did not know that many past residents now have cancer. She did not know that cleanup workers, lawyers, activists, and health officials have been trying for years to sound the alarm.
But she did sense that something was not quite right. She was told not to plant vegetables in her yard. The lease she signed warned, "This apartment community contains ... substances known to the State of California to cause cancer and/or birth defects." When she walks around the island, she sees many fenced-off sites with signs that state, "Warning: Radiologically Controlled Area." One of these radioactive sites is adjacent to the Boys & Girls Club, where her kids often played.
From Billsborough's perspective, the Navy, which oversees the cleanup, doesn't really care about her family, despite the cheery newsletters it sends out, reassuring residents about the cleanup process. In 2008, Billsborough and her two youngest daughters — ages seven and nine at the time — woke up to find workers in blue Hazmat suits and masks digging up a common area right behind her backyard on 1244G North Point Drive. No one had told her that these workers were coming. Her window was wide open. Alarmed, she called her caseworker and property manager. While the cleanup workers were still digging, an official from the Navy showed up. He apologized for not telling her to shut her window, called off the dig, and told the workers to leave.