Potrero Annex-Terrace Residents Concerned about Air Quality

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Potrero Annex-Terrace residents are concerned about periodic instances of high asbestos levels in the air caused by construction at 1801 25th Street and an associated lack of immediate notifications from Bridge Housing and the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA).  

Annex-Terrace is being slowly redeveloped under Potrero HOPE, launched in 2017. In 2021 the project entered its second phase, which focuses on the complexes’ southwestern-most portion. 

According to Eddie Kittrell, Potrero Annex Tenants Association president, neither SFHA nor Bridge Housing are doing enough to safeguard residents’ health. 

“Right now, Bridge Housing is just hosing down sites with a hose,” said Kittrell. “They need sprinklers on top of the fence as they had in Hunters Point. When the construction trucks travel through the residential streets, they spread the dust everywhere. They’re still not doing what they’re supposed to do to prevent people who live here from getting sick. That’s especially true because we’re in the middle of a pandemic involving a virus that affects respiratory health.”

Kitrell contacted SFHA numerous times to request that residents be notified immediately when asbestos levels become unhealthy, receive guidance on how to deal with asbestos exposure, as well as explanations of possible approaches to reducing asbestos concentrations. Kitrell said he hasn’t received answers, nor seen changes in air quality management. 

Marie Debor, Bridge Housing vice president of development, said the nonprofit regularly issues two types of monitoring reports. 

“The dust monitoring report gets produced on a weekly basis. We upload it to our website on a weekly basis,” said Debor. “The Naturally Occurring Asbestos report gets produced bi-weekly and we post it monthly, usually right before the community meetings. We’re working on a plan to increase the frequency of the NOA report. At each community meeting, we take time to share information about any exceedances. We explain the cause and any mitigation actions that were taken.” 

Monica Ferrey, immediate past president of the Potrero Annex Tenants Association, said if residents knew when asbestos levels exceeded healthy standards as soon as that happened, they could close their windows.

Edward Hatter, Potrero Hill Neighborhood House executive director, asserted that air quality monitors aren’t placed in the correct spots to detect dust and asbestos.

“The monitors were originally installed incorrectly or not at all when they demolished the eight buildings between 25th and 26th Streets in 2017. Later these monitors were repositioned,” said Hatter. 

Debor retorted that according to ENGEO, a San Ramon-based geotechnical and environmental engineering firm that acts as Bridge’s environmental consultant, the monitors were installed correctly and provide accurate readings. 

“A picture was taken at an angle that made the monitors’ air inlets appear to be obstructed by the side panels of the enclosure. To clearly show that the inlets were not obstructed, the sidewalls of enclosure were lowered and replaced with a metal mesh material,” said Debor. 

According to Michael Flagg, Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), principal air quality specialist, there are three monitoring locations at Annex-Terrace. 

“One is in the middle of Wisconsin Street. Another is halfway through Connecticut Street. The last is in the middle of 25th Street. Three monitors for a project this size is very typical. The monitors must be four to five feet off the ground, to represent air quality at typical breathing height,” said Flagg.

“The San Francisco Housing Authority is working closely with our development partner Bridge on all aspects of the historic HOPE SF Rebuild Potrero redevelopment project,” SFHA announced in a statement. “The SFHA recognizes and acknowledges the tremendous work and commitment to move the residents’ new, safe, healthy, re-envisioned community forward. During the ongoing construction phases to get to that goal, our development partner deploys strict, industry standard, widely trusted measures to address dust pollution issues associated with the rebuild endeavor.”

Debor said residents have asked to be notified immediately whenever there’s a spike in a dust or asbestos reading. 

“Any exceedance gets an immediate investigation and response from the contractor, as mitigation is a priority,” said Debor.  

According to Debor there’s no set quantitative measure of what constitutes short- or long- term exposure.

“A short-term exposure can be considered days to weeks, while a long-term exposure can be months to years. The California Ambient Air Quality Standard is a daily average of 0.05 milligrams/cubic meter. For the sake of the project, we consider any day of elevated daily average readings to require immediate attention and mitigative action,” said Debor. 

Annex-Terrace sits on top of serpentinite bedrock, which contains naturally occurring asbestos. When the rocks break down into the soil, it then contains asbestos too. Asbestos can become airborne when the dirt is disturbed, during excavation, grading, and material handling and hauling. 

The Department of Public Health requires implementation of a site-specific Dust Control Plan (DCP) when a project is more than half an acre, as a means to minimize visible dust. Based on its DCP, DPH said Bridge Housing completes a monitoring report daily when activities result in dust creation. 

“This daily report (includes)…a summary of weather conditions, on-site activities, dust control measures implemented, a log of visible dust observed, including location and time, corrective measures taken to resolve visible dust, verification that dust-monitoring equipment was functional, and a list of complaints received,” said DPH. 

BAAQMD requires Potrero HOPE to implement an Asbestos Dust Mitigation Plan. Debor said Bridge strives to keep asbestos levels as low as possible. 

“If a reading is found above 0.016 structures/cubic centimeter, the threshold based on risk assessments performed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and adopted by BAAQMD, (we deploy) additional mitigation measures, (including) increased water frequency at targeted areas,” said Debor. “PM10 dust recordings above 0.05 mg/m3 trigger increased dust mitigation methods beyond our preventative dust mitigation methods. The 0.05 mg/m3 level is also the level at which BAAQMD Air Quality Index levels enter the “moderate” air quality threshold. Dust exceedances are mitigated the same way as naturally occurring asbestos, with additional watering.”

The term “PM10” describes inhalable particles, or particulate matter, with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller.

Elevated amounts of construction-induced dust can be linked with high asbestos levels. There’s no statutory requirement to monitor dust. Monitoring for asbestos typically requires using instruments to take air samples, which can take a day or more to be processed in a laboratory. There’s no way to measure asbestos concentrations in the air real time with the analytical sensitivity required by BAAQMD. Physical samples must be analyzed by a qualified laboratory using an electron microscopy.

“Using dust monitoring as a proxy for asbestos reporting is not a bad thing. Monitoring the amount of dust indicates appropriate housekeeping procedures are being followed,” said Jeff Adams, leader of the environmental and geoenvironmental services group at ENGEO. 

ENGEO contracts with Bridge Housing to examine dust levels for Potrero HOPE, issuing weekly dust monitoring data. 

“If there’s an exceedance, they can go to the contractor doing work right away. Water is the best way to reduce the amount of dust. Other ways to reduce dust, and potentially airborne asbestos, is to make sure vehicles on the construction site are traveling at the appropriate speed. Also cover soil stockpiles. This can involve plastic coverings and watering the piles,” said Adams.

Debor said during Potrero Hope’s first construction phase Bridge Housing utilized sprinklers on the site’s perimeter. 

“For the second phase, we determined that the direct treatment of construction areas with watering trucks would be far more effective at mitigation than site perimeter sprinklers…because the water can be applied directly to areas that need it,” said Debor.

Debor said another method of dust and asbestos control is application of Gorilla Snot, a clear sealant, to cover dirt piles and grass that contain a high amount of dust. 

“This clear sealant lasts several months. People may not be aware that it is present and working because it is invisible. We are sharing that we’re using this method of control with residents in community meetings,” said Debor. 

According to DPH, communities near former and current industrial zones, freeways, busy roadways and distribution centers are vulnerable to health impacts caused by air pollution.

“Communities located near these types of sources can contain areas where air pollution and corresponding health impacts are greater than other areas of the City,” said DPH. 

Hatter said Annex-Terrace residents have a high amount of stress, with negative health consequences. 

“Many people who live in Potrero Annex and Terrace have asthma or are at risk to contract it because of unchecked bus idling. There was also heavy fallout of toxic particulates coming from the two now decommissioned power plants along the Port of San Francisco. There is also the fact that we sit between Highway 101 and Highway 280,” said Hatter. 

Debor is aware that other issues, including break-ins by people experiencing homelessness, has led to a general lack of trust of Bridge Housing and the City. 

“This is an open, recurring concern. We recognize residents have fear and are working to talk to them about that,” said Debor. 

“The current DPH caseworker for the development at 1801 25th Street has not received any real time complaints via email, phone, or 311 related to dust concerns,” said DPH. 

Darlene Martin, Starr King Elementary School principal, said she received a presentation on construction progress and air quality management from Bridge last December. 

“We have informed the Starr King PTA, through a Potrero Hill resident who is also the co-president of that PTA, that we would like to provide a construction update at a future PTA meeting. My team is still awaiting meeting confirmation from the Starr King PTA,” said Lyn Hikida, Bridge Housing vice president of communications.

Uzuri Pease-Greene, an Annex-Terrace resident and former community builder for Bridge Housing, is the executive director of Community Awareness Resource Entity, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides food, clothing, and socializing to Potrero Hillians. C.A.R.E. also connects Hill residents with law enforcement officers, community benefit organizations and City departments and officials to discuss violence in the neighborhood. 

“Bridge has done a good job of trying to bring residents together. It’s just that sometimes the higher ups do not listen well. They think about numbers and not the people,” said Pease-Greene. “It’s very simple to tell residents that there has been an asbestos exceedance and help them avoid exposure. Why can’t people know immediately, rather than have to wait three weeks? How does it help people to wait for a month to know that they should have closed their windows? Air quality is very important. Who is making sure that residents that have been affected are being taken care of?”