Shortly after Dr. Rupa Marya moved into the hills above East Oakland in 2017, she began smelling the acrid odors that often befouled her neighborhood's air. Then, starting last September, the professor of medicine noticed those odors getting worse. So she followed her nose and concluded that the culprit was a foundry on San Leandro Street near the RingCentral Coliseum.
Early this year, Dr. Marya started reporting the odors to a complaint line operated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Through the website Nextdoor.com, she soon identified other people who were doing the same. Several of those neighbors described the smells to the air district as resembling "burnt rubber" or "burnt asphalt."
The AB&I Foundry at San Leandro Street and 78th Avenue in East Oakland has been in business for 113 years, since long before housing grew up around it. Formerly known as American Brass and Iron — today it no longer processes brass — AB&I manufactures cast iron products such as pipes and fittings, and recycles scrap metal, including guns confiscated by police departments. With more than 200 employees, the foundry is the largest employer in East Oakland.
Neighboring residents complain of strong foul odors from the foundry and describe common symptoms including headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Foundry neighbors believe AB&I is a major factor in the community's high rate of serious health problems, pointing to the neighborhood's high rates of asthma, heart disease, and respiratory problems.
Communities for a Better Environment has been campaigning for years for the air district to take stronger action specifically against AB&I. Esther Goolsby of Communities for a Better Environment, who has lived three blocks from AB&I for 27 years, has asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. When her three children were growing up, they had asthma, nosebleeds, and headaches that restricted their ability to participate in sports and other activities. "The odors are bad," Goolsby said. "But they're also holding toxics and pollutants."
Angela Scott, Goolsby's colleague at Communities for a Better Environment, said her sister, who lived close to the foundry and died last year at age 41, had heart disease and frequent headaches.
Stories like these are common in the neighborhood, where "life expectancy is ten years less than in North Berkeley," Dr. Marya said. Data from the Alameda County Health Department show an average life expectancy of 72.7 in East Oakland and 82.7 in the Berkeley hills.
"As a physician, I'm very concerned with air pollution," Dr. Marya said. "We know now that air pollution is a major killer, one of the top causes of death in industrialized countries."
Scott acknowledges that pollution in East Oakland comes from the "cumulative impacts" of many sources — including industry, Interstate 880, the Port of Oakland, and Oakland International Airport. "We live in a sacrifice zone," Scott said.
Yet even among those other pollution sources, AB&I stands out. The California Air Resource Board named the foundry Alameda County's second largest emitter of toxic air pollution in 2017. Communities for a Better Environment has done its own air monitoring, conducted "toxic tours" of East Oakland featuring AB&I, and held countless meetings between neighborhood residents and officials from the city and the air district.
AB&I gave a boost to Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley's Illegal Dumping Pilot Program when it featured the program at its annual open house August 17. But some East Oakland residents saw the event as part of an AB&I charm offensive to divert attention from the foul odors and toxic pollution that they believe are sickening, and even killing, neighborhood residents.
Through the illegal dumping program, AB&I has joined with city and county departments, other businesses, and community organizations to clean up streets, plant trees, restore habitat, and generally "address illegal dumping and beautification," said spokesperson Zeydi Gutierrez. But Goolsby noted the irony that "the people that are polluting our air are cleaning up our streets."
AB&I operates with a permit from the air district. It reports its emissions each time the permit is renewed, said Greg Nudd, the district's deputy air pollution control officer, and district staff validates the reports. Generally, the emissions from AB&I are within acceptable legal limits. Consequently, community residents say they have lost faith in the air district's ability to protect them.
The foundry's passing grades show that the air district's requirements aren't strict enough, said Dan Sakaguchi, researcher for Communities for a Better Environment. "Meeting them doesn't actually protect community health," Sakaguchi said.
Nudd said the air district is in the process of tightening its requirements. "A couple of years ago the Bay Area Air District passed the most stringent air toxics rule in California," he said. The new rule requires polluters to meet stricter health standards and commits the district to conduct health risk assessments to see if they are met. Nudd said AB&I is now doing new testing under this program, and the air district will validate the results, which he expects in the next couple of months.
In the early 1990s, AB&I adopted a number of air-pollution-control practices in settlement of a lawsuit brought by People United for a Better Life in Oakland. In response to the settlement, Gutierrez said her company installed a "baghouse system" and an "enclosed dust transport and storage system." Since then, she added, the foundry has upgraded these systems and added "improvements to the roofing, ductwork and vents, additional fume, dust, and particulate collection, and the use of low-to-no-emissions coating processes."