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Cleaner Skies are Coming to West Oakland

State law that encouraged air district to identify neighborhoods with poor air quality has led to 84 strategies for clearing the region's air.

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Cleaning up trucks at the port is part of the plan. - PHOTO BY CHRIS DUFFEY
  • Photo by Chris Duffey
  • Cleaning up trucks at the port is part of the plan.

Back in the 1990s, parts of West Oakland felt like a parking lot for trucks. Idling as they waited to get into the Port of Oakland, lines of trucks clogged streets, blocking driveways and making it difficult to get around. But there was a far more insidious consequence of their presence — the effect of truck emissions on people's health. Conditions from asthma to cancer affected local residents in higher numbers than in other parts of Oakland.

In the years since awareness of these health impacts started to become widespread, West Oakland residents have been collecting data on local air quality with the help of grassroots organizing, partnerships, and technology. Last week, the air quality regulators and nonprofit organization that jointly led this effort released a plan in conjunction that identified 84 strategies devised to curb air pollution in response to this data. These proposals chiefly target local pollution sources, such as the trucks, trains, and ships operating at the Port of Oakland.

The document — Owning Our Air: The West Oakland Community Action Plan — has two main goals. First, it aims to get air quality in residential zones of West Oakland with poorer-than-average air quality at the level of the average West Oakland air quality by 2025. And then, by 2030, when implementation of the strategies is further along, the goal is to improve all of West Oakland's residential air quality to the level of the neighborhood with the best air quality.

One strategy tasks the Port of Oakland with developing an "Electrical Infrastructure Plan" that would "remove barriers to adoption of zero-emission trucks, such as cost, land, and ownership of charging equipment." Another entails having the city of Oakland create a vegetation plan for West Oakland that would encourage the planting of more trees that would provide a physical barrier to pollutants while also providing other benefits, such as shade and neighborhood beautification. Additional strategies include rerouting truck routes and relocating truck yards away from residential areas, and relocating some industrial facilities out of West Oakland.

The plan was released jointly by the nonprofit West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the agency that oversees air quality across the nine Bay Area counties. A committee formed of industry, agency, community, and government representatives looked at air quality data and used computer models to understand where pollution in the community is coming from and how much emissions need to be reduced to reach the desired goal of the community — lessening exposure to pollutants that elevate cancer risk.

"The 2025 and 2030 targets are ambitious for the five- and ten-year time frames," the plan says. But part of the point of the list of strategies and the two goals is to target specific sources of pollution and task the entities managing or regulating them with specific projects for doing so.

For Brian Beveridge, who in 2008 co-founded the nonprofit West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project along with Margaret Gordon, this plan has the potential to reshape the trajectory on local air pollution and its effect on residents' quality of life.

"This is a community plan, it's based in equity, it's based in reducing exposure, not just emissions," he said.

The plan notes that cancer is on the extreme end of health impacts of these pollutants, and by taking steps to address cancer risk, other health conditions will be addressed, too.

Residents in West Oakland face higher cancer risk due to the sheer volume of regional infrastructure located there, the plan says. The sources of pollution vary widely. Trucks, ships, and trains visit the Port of Oakland. The area is bordered by I-880, I-980, and I-580 and is criss-crossed by BART tracks. It is also home to industrial operations such as recycling facilities, companies like Schnitzer Steel, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District wastewater treatment plant.

The biggest pollutant affecting the area, in terms of cancer risk, is diesel particulate matter — small particles produced from diesel generators and diesel-powered vehicles that can cause cancer and other health complications such as heart disease, asthma, and even premature death. Other pollutants the plan is concerned with are other types of particulate matter — small particles that in high doses are harmful, as on spare-the-air days — and other "toxic air contaminants," such as benzene and formaldehyde.

The Port of Oakland is identified in the plan as being a major source of diesel particulate matter, from the ships that dock there, to the trucks that shuttle goods around the grounds, to the semi-trucks and trains that haul goods into the wider world. Mike Zampa, communications director for the Port of Oakland, declined to comment on the plan until his agency has had a chance to submit its official comments on the draft, but said that the Port's recently-adopted "Seaport Air Quality 2020 and Beyond Plan" puts the Port on a path to becoming zero-emissions in the future and complements the community action plan.

The port was not always as engaged with these issues as it is today. Plan steering committee member Karin Mac Donald, a founding member of the Prescott-Oakland Point Neighborhood association, was one of two named plaintiffs who successfully sued the Port of Oakland in the mid-'90s for allowing the trucks to use the neighborhood streets. In the years since, she has been part of other lawsuits against other agencies, and other community members have banded together asking for changes that improve air quality and in turn, the health of residents.

"I've been an active participant in trying to keep this neighborhood a little more breathable for a very long time and make this neighborhood into something that is more healthy for all of us," she said.

Yet the picture of health for West Oakland residents is still not a pretty one — local air quality is some of the worst in the Bay Area. Residents are still at a higher risk for developing health problems like cancer and respiratory conditions such as asthma. Life expectancy is shorter for people who live in West Oakland compared to other Bay Area communities. It is a particularly sensitive issue because it remains a predominantly low-income, African-American community with a long history shaped by industrialization and a legacy of redlining — the discriminatory home loan lending practices that systematically denied opportunities for economic advancement to people of color across the country, including the bay area.

On the subject of the process that went into creating the plan draft itself, participants expressed a number of concerns — how time consuming the process was, how dense some of the information presented was, and how much they wanted to be able to share it broadly with the community. But without the leadership of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, it could have much more difficult, said Renata Foucre, a West Oakland resident and board member of the West Oakland Neighbors group.

Still, Foucre is concerned that the plan does not go far enough to improve air quality. She was disappointed that instead of the plan aiming to get air quality levels on par with the best air quality in the Bay Area, the plan aims only to get air quality on par with the best air quality in West Oakland.

"To me, that doesn't say equity," she said. "That's like, okay, we'll give it a little bit of help, but that doesn't help to get it to where it really should be." But she wondered if there isn't a lot of power to make sure the strategies get implemented, and that perhaps the existing goal is already ambitious enough.

However, Henry Hilken, a planning director with the air management district, said the best air quality in West Oakland is already comparable to that of other areas in Oakland. The air district is committed to continuously improving air quality in West Oakland, and working with other local agencies to do so, even after the plan goals are met, he added.

The availability of hard data about air quality has enabled regulators and concerned citizens to better identify where the pollution is coming from and which parts of the community are most impacted. The process was made possible by a 2017 California law that provided funding for air districts to identify areas in their district with the worst air quality and work with the community to propose solutions to reduce people's cancer risk and improve other community health outcomes.

When the law passed, West Oakland was already at the top of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's list, both for its poor air quality and the on-the-ground work that organizations like the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project had already been doing to monitor air quality. Recently, the project partnered with Google Earth and Aclima to drive every street in West Oakland, at least three times, recording air quality along the way, said Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, an air quality mapping project manager with the Environmental Defense Fund, which designed and funded that earlier project and was a member of the plan's steering committee.

Participants expressed concern with getting the community to comment on the draft and participate in the process going forward.

"I would hope that we could get a good amount of civilian public comment on it," said Foucre, "people who can look at it with a critical eye and give reasonable recommendations for how it could be different if it needs to be, and I think it could be."

The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is holding a town hall on Saturday, August 17th at the West Oakland Youth Center, where they hope to get gather additional public comments about the plan.

EDITOR’s NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated that the Environmental Defense Fund “participated” in a West Oakland air quality mapping project. In fact, it designed and funded that earlier project.

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