A Conversation with Community Advocate Michelle Pierce

The former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (HPNS) shares a similar history with the former Naval Station Treasure Island. Michelle Pierce is an environmental justice advocate with the Bayview Community Advocates who has worked to bring resident concerns about the cleanup of HPNS to the attention of government officials and representatives. For almost 20 years she has worked in the Bayview on air quality, pollution, and nuclear remediation issues. This is an edited partial transcript of a conversation about her family’s roots in San Francisco and how the Bayview community organized to shut down high emissions Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) plants in the neighborhood. [Interview by Jin Zhu, transcription by Bean Crane & Jin Zhu.]

Jin Zhu: How long have you lived in San Francisco?

Michelle Pierce: I am 44. I have lived in San Francisco my whole life, in the southeast corridor. I was born on Potrero Hill, and when I was almost five, we moved out here to Bayview, which is where we still live.

Third Street between Quesada and Revere, 1944. Photo: courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

JZ: Were your parents also born here?

MP: I am a third generation San Franciscan. My father moved from the Midwest and started his own business. My mother was born and raised here; she was born in the Fillmore. My mother works for the [San Francisco] Health Department. She’s what got me into this field.

She worked for the Health Department as the environmental justice coordinator for years and years. When she was doing the environmental justice work for the city, she moved into that from this nonprofit that she and some of the old timers from the neighborhood started: the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Advocates, which they founded in 1994.

As she would go to her meetings with government agencies, [the agency] technical people would try to out-speak or out-science the people who were showing up. I was majoring in chemical and biochemical engineering and her academic training was in the legal field. She and the advocates would give me whatever documentation they brought, or she would read her notes back to me and ask me to interpret what they were saying and what my impressions of possible impacts to communities might be.

More and more, other groups around the Bay Area used me in that way. I spent a lot of my undergraduate time at City College translating technical documents for social justice and environmental justice groups so they could go back to whomever they were negotiating with and say, “Stop trying to play us or make us look silly, and actually come to the table and talk to us.”

That’s how I got into this work. It’s been almost 20 years.

JZ: How would you describe the Bayview?

MP: There were two predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco; this was one of them. These were the places where African Americans could buy homes. It remains the only neighborhood in the city that is zoned for agricultural, industrial, and residential use.

This area has the convergence of all of the freeways and a lot of the trucking thoroughfares. The streets are open to 18-wheelers. The train runs right through this corridor. We have a lot of diesel fuel pollutants. All of that is in the air, but it also falls out of the air and concentrates in certain places, so the soil around here is pretty bad.

Michelle speaks about community organizing in response to heavy-emitting PG&E plants. Audio: courtesy Anti-Eviction Mapping Project; audio editing by Bean Crane.

We fought really hard to get all of the PG&E plants in this area and in Dogpatch shut down. We had a lot of benzene, mercury, and lead in the air. That was one of the things that spurred the push to say [to PG&E], “Hey, you have these plants. You need to shut at least one or two of them down and move them to some other part of the city. No other part of the city is willing to take them? Then you need to get them all out.”

Everything that you can think of that is dirty or harmful happened probably in Bayview-Hunters Point. We had high rates of asthma, high rates of breast cancer and other forms of cancer throughout the areas that were closest to those plants. There was talk of expanding them and or possibly introducing some dirtier technologies to them.

One of the first major victories that environmental justice groups had was getting that cleaned up. They all rallied around that one issue and fought. There was a critical mass of people focusing on those power plants and getting them moved to somewhere else in the city, or getting them removed completely. It was a perfect storm of events of people and interest at that time. The most critical factor that helped get those power plants closed was the passion of the community to really fight to make it happen; persistence on the part of the community.

Aerial view of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, 1946. Photo: courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

JZ: Tell me about the shipyard.

MP: The shipyard was one of the main draws for the black community to the Bay Area. During World War II, the Great Migration was about getting away from Jim Crow, getting out of the South, where things were scary if you were a descendant of a slave. More importantly, I think the Great Migration was about economics and chasing job opportunities, going places where you could actually get a job. There was some movement with New Deal programs, but we were excluded from a lot of those programs.

With the war and so many able-bodied white men enlisted or called up for the draft, lots of jobs became available to anybody who was willing to do them. There were lots of job opportunities, and there was not as extreme a wage differential depending on race or ethnicity if you could get a job working in support of the war effort. Those were really good jobs that brought in a lot of black people to what was traditionally an Italian neighborhood.

For almost a century, we had the largest dry dock on the West Coast. The navy bought that space out from the commercial shipping group and took it over to utilize it for military purposes. We saw a lot of ships that were not based here run through that dock.

That is, in fact, how my grandparents met. My grandmother was from Louisiana, and my grandfather was from Alabama. My grandfather joined the navy, and my grandmother moved out here during the war. My grandmother worked on the base. They met during the war when my grandpa was passing through on his boat. I don’t think my grandfather had any intention of settling down here until he met my grandma and got married.

My uncle and my mother were born on Navy Road, up there in what is now public housing projects but at that time was housing for families who worked on the base.

There are very few old timers in this city who don’t have some tie to the Hunters Point shipyard. Just about everybody either passed through, had contracts, or worked there.

JZ: When did people start to realize the problem with radioactive contamination at the shipyard?

MP: That’s the real rub with what’s going on right now. I think the people who worked there always knew radiation was a problem.

US Naval Radiological Defense Lab located at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, 1955. Photo: courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

The National Radiological [Defense] Lab was set up to figure out how to decontaminate fallout and contamination from nuclear radiation. They created that lab specifically to figure out how to fix a problem. They thought they might be able to solve the problem through their work, but they knew. What they discovered fairly quickly is that there was no way to decontaminate.

It did not become a problem to the rest of the city until they were ready to shut that lab down and figure out what they were going to do with that space. The determination was they were going to turn it over to this city and walk away.

The navy’s scientists and engineers would sometimes talk about how much they were going to clean up the areas around the shipyard and the rest of Hunters Point. They would say, “We’re only going to get it to background level. We’re only going to get it to where it was historically, even though this is still at toxic levels.1 Then we’ll turn it over to the city and housing.”

They got authorization for decommissioning in 1974. It was completely closed by 1976. It took them until 1996 to acknowledge that there was a radiological lab at that site. That site had two functions: cleaning ships, and researching how to clean up radioactive fallout. The navy, for 20 years, denied that one of those functions even existed, even with so many residents who had worked there saying this happened.

They were saying that over the fake data, as well. “Oh, you are exaggerating. It’s not that bad. It’s only a few sections. We only know about five fake samples.” And it turns out that it’s 48.9%.2 We’re exaggerating?

Lennar welcome center at the Shipyard, 2018. The center and the condominiums in the background are situated on Parcel A. Photo: Jin Zhu

JZ: I want to ask you about Parcel A3 and the definition of “safe.” Officials claim it’s safe to live there, but people can’t dig in the soil at all.

MP: The main argument for Parcel A is it always contained residences. There was no business activity, so we don’t need to clean it up.

But we know for a fact that the navy used lead-based paints in those residences and demolished those residences. All of that stuff got dropped into the soil. It is not OK for your kids or dogs to play in the dirt.

How many dogs don’t play in the dirt? This is what dogs do. Of course your kids and your dogs do that, and they bring in whatever they dug up into the house.

What are you going to be breathing or eating or drinking? What happens in the first big storm, when things start backing up? Or when Fido starts digging where you’re not supposed to dig? The navy has to confront those issues.

Lennar/FivePoint doesn’t, so who’s holding them accountable? They are truly interested in gentrifying. I had someone from OCII [the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure] explain to me that these were supposed to be affordable housing units. But $800,000 for a studio? Who is that affordable to? If you want to keep teachers and policemen in the city, or if you want to keep truckers, janitors, and wait staff in the city, $800,000 for a home? What do you mean by “affordable”? They’re claiming that [this housing was] built for working-class people, but working-class people can’t afford it.

There were several comments [during] FivePoint sales open house: “We need more $10 coffees so we can move the rest of these elements out.” They’re looking to move “elements” out. We’re not an “element,” we’re the residents!


1 Background level refers to the amount of radiation present in our environment due to naturally occurring radon gas and isotopes dispersed widely as the result of postwar atomic testing. It serves as the baseline standard of what is an acceptable, or at the very least unavoidable, amount of radiation for human exposure. Both the location and time period from which a background reading is taken are controversial; a reading taken after radiological activities at the shipyard had commenced results in a higher background standard than one taken prior to the beginning of military activities, when the site had not yet been contaminated. Hence, simply by choosing the historical period from which to determine background level, officials can designate a much higher amount of radiation as “safe.” Officials claim that remediating the site to a pre-shipyard level is not possible, while community activists prefer to use a pre-shipyard background level as a standard of what is natural and “clean.”
2 Reports since the interview have placed the percentage of Tetra Tech’s work that needs to be rescanned at 90% to 97%.
3 Parcel A consists of land within the bounds of the former naval station that has already been transferred to the city of San Francisco. Lennar has already built and sold condominiums on this parcel, which is currently occupied by residents.