On August 16, 2019, Michael Moore appeared on MSNBC and warned that lead-contaminated water is not unique to Flint, Michigan, or Newark, New Jersey, but is a nation-wide issue. Well, San Francisco, we’ve got a problem too. In fact, all of San Francisco’s mayors and supervisors have been guilty of criminal neglect for 80 years.
In the 19th century, Lake Merced, on the border of San Francisco and Daly City, had the notorious distinction of being “the place to go” for having a duel—a glorified shoot-out. Dueling was illegal in San Francisco, but Lake Merced was so remote from the city that San Francisco’s finest citizens could shoot at each other in isolation from the law. In September 1859, an infamous duel took place at the southern end of the lake. Senator David Broderick and David Terry, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California, argued over slavery. Terry, a Southern Democrat from Kentucky, supported slavery, while Broderick promoted abolition. Terry had lost his re-election to the California Supreme Court, blaming and insulting Broderick. Broderick, in turn, insulted Terry, who then challenged Broderick to a duel. During the duel, Broderick’s pistol went off prematurely, giving Terry the opportunity to aim and shoot. Broderick died 3 days later. The political murder at Lake Merced—now marked by a sign (BRODERICK-TERRY DUEL) on the road—finally ended the practice of dueling throughout California.
However, San Francisco’s eccentric sociology with firearms reappeared in the 20th century with the Pacific Rod and Gun Club establishment at Lake Merced in 1937. They occupied 14 acres of land, which they rented from the city. The gun club fought with the city for years over how to clean up soil that had been contaminated by both lead bullets and clay targets made with carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene as a binder (which also binds to DNA). With the 400 club members and their guests shooting an estimated 10,000 clay targets every week, the pile of debris kept growing. A 2011 study of the site found that the 80 years of shooting left the water and top three feet of the range’s soil contaminated by lead shot, along with levels of arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene beyond the limit safe for humans. The club stopped using carcinogenic clay targets in 1994—coincidentally, the same year the city issued the initial clean-up order. The gunners then switched to either steel or bismuth bullets, which supposedly don’t cause long-term health problems, except that bismuth can cause kidney damage.
The Pacific Rod and Gun Club was finally forced to shut down in April 2015. The Board of Supervisors approved $9.5 million for the cleanup, which began days after the club moved out, but the total cost will likely reach $22 million. Construction crews had to remove about 46,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from 11 acres and replace it with clean dirt.
The Public Utilities Commission claims that the mountain of lead shot that has fallen into Lake Merced since 1937 poses no health problem. Digging out and replacing the top 4 feet of soil will supposedly make the entire site safe for any future use. With the lead bullets buried in the lake’s sediment, the water commission claims that the only real environmental concern is for diving ducks that can pick up the lead shot when they go down and feed. But, it should be no surprise that there are no more diving ducks at the lake. At the very least, the lake water must be contaminated with birds that died from lead poisoning. The dredging did not reach the center of the lake because San Francisco city government assured us that the accumulation of lead shot is not harmful to health—unless you happen to be a dead duck. Or, does the city fear dredging up victims of San Francisco’s “O.K. Corral”?
Lake Merced is San Francisco’s only natural body of freshwater and thus designated as an emergency water source for the city. A major earthquake, or other disruption of the city’s water supply, would require us to drink Lake Merced water. Will our fate echo that of Flint, Michigan? If nothing else, it’s probably wise for everyone to store at least 12 gallons of drinking water and avoid Lake Merced’s “cocktail” of lead, arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene, bismuth, and carcasses.
Alexander, K. (2014) ChronWatch: Will Lake Merced ever be clean? SF Gate, August 8, 2014.
Bay City News (2017) Supes To Approve $8.25M Lake Merced Shooting Range Settlement. Bay City News, October 16, 2017.
Stienstra, T. (2012) S.F.’s dirty little secret: The Lake Merced cesspool. SF Gate, July 8, 2012.
Swan, R. (2017) SF settles for $8.25 million with Lake Merced gun club over contamination. San Francisco Chronicle, September 1, 2017. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/City-settles-for-8-25-million-with-Lake-Merced-12168085.php
Taylor, B. (2012) SF Faces $10 Million Toxic Waste Problem At Lake Merced Gun Club. KPIX, CBS SF Bay Area, May 24, 2012. https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2012/05/24/sf-faces-10-million-toxic-waste-problem-at-lake-merced-gun-club/
Thompson, L. (2016) From Reservoir To Retreat, How Lake Merced Has Persevered Over Time. Hoodline, August 27, 2016. https://hoodline.com/2016/08/from-reservoir-to-retreat-how-lake-merced-has-persevered-over-time
Wildermuth, J. (2015) S.F. gun club closure triggers $22 million cleanup. San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 2015. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/S-F-gun-club-closure-triggers-22-million-cleanup-6097372.php
Yablon, A. (2016) Gun Ranges Produce Thousands of Tons of Toxic Pollution Every Year. But few regulations protect people or the environment from the hazards posed by spent ammo. The Trace, April 17, 2016.