A community leader looks out at a construction site that some tenants fear may be making the kids sick.
Ed Hatter looks at Potrero Block B construction site from the landing of a nearby apartment. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken November, 2022.

As developers of Potrero Hill public housing drill through rock containing naturally occurring asbestos, community members who live yards away are demanding improved remediation and increased notification about health risks.

Developer BRIDGE Housing is in the midst of redeveloping the southern edge of the neighborhood at Potrero Terrace and the Potrero Annex. It is the second Potrero Hill phase of the city’s massive public housing redevelopment project, HOPE SF, which is rehabbing and developing approximately 5,000 units of housing at Alice Griffith, Sunnydale, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill. 

But Potrero Hill residents worry about the rehab’s potential health risks. The neighborhood is replete with a natural form of asbestos, serpentine rock, which contractors are drilling during construction. 

“I closed all the windows and my kids are being sick,” one resident who lives roughly six feet away from the site, told Mission Local. “I had to take them to [stay with] the other family [members]. They just come home to sleep.”

A couple of apartments are situated less than a dozen feet from the construction site of Potrero Block B, where serpentine rock is easy to spot. Just across the street at 1101 Connecticut St. tenants live in six dozen occupied apartments. These were part of the first phase of the Potrero Hill revitalization, completed in 2019. The second phase promises 157 affordable units by 2024. In total, Potrero HOPE SF will have some 819 affordable housing units and 800 market-rate units, new retail, streets, and open space.

John F. Foran Fwy

Potrero Terrace and Annex

will be rebuilt in several

phases, and is set to be

complete in 2031

23rd St

Dakota St

Phase 1, the stand-alone

building at 1101 Connecticut

St., was completed in 2018

Wisconsin St

Connecticut St

25th St

Phase 2, which promises

157 affordable units, is currently

underway. Air monitors have

been set up on the north,

east, and west sides of the site.

John F. Foran Fwy

Potrero Terrace and Annex

will be rebuilt in several

phases, and is set to be

complete in 2031

23rd St

Dakota St

Connecticut St

Wisconsin St

25th St

Phase 1, the stand-alone

building at 1101 Connecticut

St., was completed in 2018

Phase 2, which promises 157 units, is

underway. Air monitors have been set up

on the north, east, and west sides of the site.

Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.

As the project proceeds, however, residents fear that asbestos and construction dust will compound the area’s documented higher rates of asthma. Community members say that, over decades, they have been exposed to other potential contaminant exposures from the Potrero Power Plant and freeways.

Levels of asbestos and dust that are unacceptably elevated, or exceedances, as they are called, occur as frequently as a few times a week, according to BRIDGE’s data. During the construction, dust exposure, which usually does not include asbestos but other minerals, has also exceeded what OSHA deems acceptable, the developer’s data shows.

Generally, the risk of naturally occurring asbestos causing serious disease like lung cancer is likely only if residents are directly exposed for “many years,” according to Dr. John Balmes, a professor of Divisions of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital who also serves on the California Air Resources Board.

“The one outcome that takes less exposure, mesothelioma, still takes more exposure than periodic exceedances from the drilling,” Balmes said. 

Though Balmes says residents are not at great risk from asbestos, he understands their concerns about dust, given Potrero Hill’s increased risk of respiratory disease. 

“It’s much more likely that the dust could exacerbate somebody with asthma than for that person to have any health consequences from exceedances,” he said. “The general rule of thumb is to be precautionary and to protect people, so it’s up to the contractor to be as careful as possible.”

Edward Hatter, the executive director of the community center the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, nicknamed “The NABE,” wants developers to provide more resources and notification. 

In the meantime, the leader has taken matters into his own hands by interviewing residents about their symptoms and offering them air-filtration machines. Hatter and other community members also purchased an air filter to check the contaminant levels independently. 

At a community meeting in November, Hatter chastised BRIDGE liaisons for its limited community engagement. 

“You’re having to deal with cleanup of the dust and dirt on a daily basis, all right? And nobody even talks to them,” Hatter said, referring to the tenants. “Nobody’s come to bring any kind of compensation for them. Nobody’s talked to them about maybe relocating.”

Hatter urged BRIDGE Housing liaisons to provide daily updates on contaminant exposure, and to post it publicly on the physical site to keep residents informed. BRIDGE publishes the reports weekly on its website, and goes over results during bimonthly community meetings. 

One woman at the November meeting wanted to be updated each time a monitor was moved, and wanted reports that tracked exceedances per monitor, instead of averaging the three. 

The NABE director also demanded BRIDGE clean the dust-coated windows of residents who live near the construction site, and to supply air filters. Hatter alleged residents clean up the dust themselves with the basic paper towels and cleaning solution BRIDGE provided. 

“It’s insulting,” Hatter added. “They’re cleaning up after your mess. Your mess.” 

BRIDGE disagreed. “We’ve done a really good job keeping any exceedances to a minimum,” said a staff member during the community meeting, adding that some exceedances are due to Potrero Hill’s poorer air quality. “I think there was only one instance where we’ve had an exceedance at the same monitor for multiple days and that was only a two-day period.”

One way of preventing excess exposure is by wetting down the surfaces before contractors break ground, thus limiting airborne contaminants or dust. BRIDGE developers are now doing this, according to the company and community members, but tenants allege they skipped this step in early construction stages. 

Given the health risks, proper procedures were mandated by the city of San Francisco and the Planning Department before project approval, according to planning documents. 

The city also required developers to send reports detailing asbestos and dust exposure to the third-party Bay Area Air Quality District, and to send reports to the city’s Department of Public Health. 

BRIDGE has set up three DUSTRAK II air monitors placed at the Potrero Hill construction site at Wisconsin Street, 25th Street, and Connecticut Street, and averages the results daily. BRIDGE releases these results once a week. 

An air monitor at Potrero Hill Block B, with info from the Department of Public Health on the side for tenants.
An Air Monitor at Potrero Hill Block B site. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken November, 2022.

A health expert on behalf of BRIDGE dismissed allegations of serious health risk. “I’ll say that the thresholds are established through the risk assessments accepted by the Air Quality Management District, and are based on exposures for 24 hours a day over the course of 70 years,” he said. “So they’re extremely conservative and designed to be protective of public health.”

Balmes, the UCSF professor, said the company was “pushing it” by claiming risks could occur only after seven decades. “That’s too long. It all depends on the level of exposure, again. It takes many years, but 70 is on the far end of the line.”

Balmes said that most of the requests Hatter and community members have made are reasonable, including providing free KN95s and N95 masks and air filtration to residents. The doctor also said the developers should be in charge of cleaning residual dust, no matter the health exposure, given that residents are among the most affected. 

Daily updates on air quality could be difficult, depending on how the results are processed, Balmes said. Documenting exceedences at each monitor, instead of averaging them, could be possible, however.

Balmes isn’t “overly concerned” with the exceedances at Potrero Hill. “But with that said, I think the construction company can do the right thing to reduce exposures as much as possible.”

A chart that shows potential asbestos exposure that is highlighted in green and red; green for safe levels, red for high possibility of exposure.
BRIDGE Housing data showing exceedances during a November 2022 community meeting. Photo by Annika Hom. Taken November, 2022.

BRIDGE Housing’s spokesperson responded to Mission Local’s request of an interview regarding mitigation efforts with two documents. They are included below.

BRIDGE Housing mitigation efforts Potrero Block B.
BRIDGE Housing mitigation efforts Potrero Block B.
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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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7 Comments

  1. Sure it sounds mean.
    – People do have the right to move.
    – People can request temporary housing.
    – that subsidize housing project has bigger issues right now gangs fires squatters are a few of them

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  2. I live east of the building site. The project is moving at a snails pace. Serpentine bearing rock as been exposed to the elements for far too long. Bridge needs to have their contractors get this project done in a timely manner thus lessening the exposure to the surrounding community.

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  3. People in subsidized units complaining about other subsidized units being build. Amazing.

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  4. It should be instructive to see how the City responds to a whiter, wealthier community on asbestos concern from construction compared to how the City responded to Hunters’ Point residents’ exposure to asbestos a few decades ago.

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    1. I think the insinuation that this is a race-based issue is a bit of a stretch.

      It’s apparently endemic to the site, specifically in terms of geology. And, as far as I can tell from the article itself, all responsible parties are doing everything legally and ethically required, but some of the neighboring residents want more out of the developer (no surprise that “compensation” was listed as a line item).

      Overall, this sounds more like the standard operating procedure for neighborhood groups and political rhetoric over any real negligence (not that it shouldn’t be taken seriously).

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    2. It’s a localized impact – I expect it wouldn’t affect residents outside of the Annex and thus wouldn’t get anymore pushback than HP. Perhaps a bit around 23rd / Wisconsin?

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      1. Research up the resistance by the Resident Advisory Board in Bayview/Hunter’s Point to Lennar’s site prep work including asbestos dust in adjacent residential areas. The City and Navy never really took steps to protect BV/HP residents.

        In the case of Potrero with a wealthier, whiter population, let’s see how the City and SFHA respond.

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