Pollution and Prejudice in San Francisco
By Kevin Williams
A proliferation of pollutants, toxins and other dangerous radiological and biological chemical agents saturate the land, air and water that Bay View Hunters Point families are attempting to survive in with their children. Decades of benign neglect have resulted in unparalleled devastation to the health and well-being of residents. This is a fact that is now a matter of record.
Yet nothing of any substance has been done to reverse the current trendthe incalculable number of men, women and children who face imminent death from a plethora of serious respiratory ailments. Nor does any public agency seem to be making much effort to reverse the staggering and disproportionate number of Black women of the community who find themselves courageously battling breast cancer, directly tied to the pollutants found in Bay View Hunters Point (BVHP) in San Francisco.
These women are our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and nieces. They are the mothers and caregivers of our childrenarguably the most valuable asset for the future we haveand deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
While I could focus attention on many subjects that illustrate the problems related to the swath of devastation and destruction visited upon the quality of life these unacceptable health conditions impose upon thousands of BVHP residents, I will direct my remarks about just one, to illustrate how pollution and prejudice work together as weapons of mass destruction.
In the early 1970s, the Southeast Community Facility was built as a mitigation measure in exchange for community support to the citys plan to build the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plantcommonly called the sewage treatment plant. Community leaders urged the city 35 years ago to treat San Franciscos human effluent in other locations in the city and not just in BVHP.
To allay community concern, officials guaranteed to the community that a cross-town tunnel leading to the ocean beach at the Great Highway would be built. A multi-million dollar bond measure was passed by the voters to assure the funding necessary to complete the mammoth construction project.
However, inexplicably, the cross-town tunnel was never built. For decades, one city administration after another did not heed vociferous protests from community leaders such as the late Harold Madison, the late Ethel Garlington and others who relentlessly cried out to the city to live up to and keep the promises made to 70,000 community residents.
Those leaders were correct in foreseeing the consequences that would eventually befall the community for acquiescing to government-sanctioned tyranny disguised as development. Like an invisible raging torrent, over 80 percent of the effluent from the entire city flows directly into BVHP for treatment and is then pumped into the Bay. More sewage comes from Colma, Daly City and Brisbane.
As for the promise made by government officials that community leaders witnessed, they all died waiting for it to be fulfilled. The promise of jobs and training directed primarily to African American residents from BVHP was also broken.
Today, the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant on Phelps Street is polluted not just by the choking odor of human waste, especially when the digesters overflow on rainy days, but by the overflow of inhumane prejudice toward Black people in their own community demonstrated by the hangmans noose placed in the desk drawer of Anita Labossiere, a 23-year employee and the only Black woman senior chemist working for the San Francisco Water Pollution Control Bureau.
The hangmans noose and the stress associated with such an odious symbol of hate and intolerance made her working conditions impossible for several weeks. When she attempted to return to work, she was told that she needed to obtain a doctors note. Labossiere did so.
Her private doctor cleared her to return to work. However, she was then told that she would be required to see a city doctor. Moreover, the city took the unusual step of contacting and attempting to change the mind of her private doctor.
She had to wait two more months to see the city doctor. Finally, after a 10-minute visit and no more than a visual examination, the city doctor determined that she was not fit to return to work.
The city then required a third opinion from yet another doctor to further delay her return to work. A few weeks ago, upon the advice of her attorney, she simply went to work, accompanied by Roland Sheppard, a well-known local labor leader.
Many of her co-workers were pleased to see her return and exchanged warm greetings with Anita. However, soon after Sheppard left, three managers of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission escorted Labossiere out of the building in plain view of the other employees. One superior warned her that if she returned she would be terminated for insubordination.
Carmi Johnson, who was also confronted with a hangmans noose, and Leticia Brown are two other Black women on the staff who have suffered the maltreatment of prejudice and segregation in the workplace by Public Utilitities Commission (PUC) brass.
Longtime resident Espanola Jackson asked nearly a year ago for an accounting from the PUC of revenue streams generated from payments to the city from other counties. To date, she has not received a single report.
Jackson too heard the commitments made to the community years ago. The jobs created by the construction and operation of the sewage treatment plant were to benefit community residents, the people most affected by the plant.
Similarly, the promises of a program to train residents in horticulture, culinary arts and pollution control appear to have no more value than an old Indian treaty. Not one resident works in the horticulture annex at the Southeast plant.
Based upon the testimony of at least three Black employees, the PUC management operates the Southeast pollution plant in much the same manner as a Southern plantation. It permits and condones without comment, hangmans nooses, the flagrant abuse and humiliation of a Black woman supervisorin one instance a white male subordinate employee was allowed to call her a f-g Black bitch. No discipline followed against the insubordinate man. In another instance, Senior Chemist Anita Labossiere was thrown out of her office for reporting the maltreatment of Black women and herself at the Southeast plant, which ironically is located in a predominately Black community.
The repressive treatment by PUC management toward Black women has, however, awakened a sleeping giant and has produced a force unifying Blacks, organized labor, and progressive residents who abhor legally sanctioned corruption manifested by privatization of city jobs and favoritism and cronyism in contract awards.
The agenda will henceforth be to challenge pollution and prejudice, until we succeed in exposing these twin weapons of mass destruction to the extent that they impede the inalienable constitutional guarantees common to us all, of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Bay View, March 1, 2004