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Touring Oakland's toxic legacy

West Oakland is a neighborhood of glaring contradictions.

Glistening new condos line one street, around the corner from boarded up Victorian houses and storefront churches.

Young professionals drawn by the allure of a quick commute to San Francisco are settling in among the area's 24,000 residents, some planning to raise children in an area where one in five youngsters suffers from asthma.

A children's playground sits flush against Interstate 880, one of the three freeways in the area traveled by thousands of trucks coming and going from the nearby Port of Oakland.

In recent years, residents have taken action to raise awareness about environmental degradation in Oakland's oldest neighborhood and cut down on sources of pollution. The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is now conducting “toxic tours” through the neighborhood to bring people face to face with the extent of industry's poisonous legacy in West Oakland.

Yesterday, a group of 28 participants in the Environmental Justice Symposium, at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, were guided on a bus tour of West Oakland's patchwork of residences and industry. Leading the way was longtime resident Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and a member of the Port of Oakland's Board of Commissioners.

As many United States residents have done since the 19th century, West Oaklanders today “live, work, play and raise children” in the same area, Gordon said. However, proximity to industry has led to serious health and safety issues that until recently impacted a poor, largely African-American population.

As the bus wound its way through the neighborhood streets, Gordon recounted its industrial past. Coca-Cola, Carnation Milk and Nabisco all had facilities at the intersection of Mandela Parkway and 18th Street; only empty buildings remain today.

A stretch of steel plants once lined the Parkway up to the Emeryville border – they have since been replaced by artists' studios, although the ground pollution from industry has not been remediated. Other now-abandoned industrial sites have caused significant problems.

California WatchPhoto by Ali Winston

At Third Street and Mandela Parkway, West Oakland has one of Oakland's two federal Superfund sites, where the operations of AMCO Chemical left a deposit of cancer-causing vinyl chloride in the soil and groundwater.

The contamination, caused by leakage from chemicals pumped from rail cars into smaller containers, was accidentally discovered by utility workers in 1995. The Environmental Protection Agency assigned the lot Superfund status in 2003.

Industrial sites are not limited to main thoroughfares. Train tracks crisscross side streets, some still in use by local businesses. Cole Elementary School is located adjacent to the California Cereal facility, which often has diesel engine trains idling outside. A recycling smelter also sits around the corner from the middle school.

Over the past decade, West Oakland has seen a boom in the number of recycling facilities, including Custom Alloy Scrap Sales Inc. on Peralta Street, the largest smelter west of the Mississippi. Ostensibly a “green” industry, recyclers located in residential areas add to existing air pollution through industrial processes and additional truck traffic.

Truck traffic is an issue of critical importance.

A 2003 study, undertaken by the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, stated that the amount of soot produced by trucks passing through West Oakland each day is equivalent to 127,677 cars. The study also found West Oakland's diesel particulates per square mile were 90 times greater than in California as a whole.

Gordon next led the group out to the Port of Oakland, the nation's sixth-largest port and the engine that drives West Oakland's economy.

California WatchPhoto by Ali Winston

The docks were quiet on the weekend, but during the week lines of big rigs sit with their engines running, waiting to load containers full of goods shipped from overseas. Cargo ships produce approximately 30 percent of the port's diesel emissions, according to the environmental indicators project. Getting the port to acknowledge its impact on the city has been an uphill struggle.

“The port has this model, 'business over people,” says Gordon, who has witnessed many of these policy battles firsthand as a member of the Oakland Port Board of Commissioners

There have been successful efforts to reduce air pollution. The Port of Oakland is slowly implementing a “clean trucks” program that requires truckers to retrofit their vehicles or buy newer ones with better emissions standards.

One of the environmental indicators project's most successful initiatives, done in conjunction with the Port and the city of Oakland, was the restriction of truck traffic to and from the Port of Oakland to freeways, West Grand Street and Upper Peralta Street. Previously, trucks traveled through streets and idled with their engines running without restrictions.

In addition, one of the 12 shipping terminals in Oakland is requiring its vessels to switch from diesel to electric power while berthed.

However, there is still a great deal of work ahead. The environmental indicators project is working against a proposed expansion of Amtrak's rail yard on a former Army base now owned by the Port. The project is arguing that the land would be better used to relocate polluting industries from West Oakland's residential heart to create a “buffer zone” between residences and the port.

Cities such as Rotterdam in Holland have implemented such policies to cut down on exposure to pollutants. The morning's outing was an educational experience of a different nature for the collection of students and advocates in attendance.

Brian Parker, a second-year law student at UC Hastings College of the Law, had worked on environmental justice issues in Ecuador but was unaware of the extent of West Oakland's problems

“This is so much more powerful than sitting in a classroom and having someone talk at you," Parker said. "It's just 15 minutes away.”

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

Comments

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Anonymous's picture
Ali-- Oakland Local, Newsdesk.org and a number of independent East Bay media groups did a similar set of explorations in 2009--see index here: Bay Area Toxic Tour: Series Index | Oakland Local http://bit.ly/9UrOtN
mkp's picture
The author here gives us a clear idea of the extent of air pollution in West Oakland. Nowadays it has become one of the most polluted regions in the United States. A lot of young professionals are settling in this region because they can find easy transportation to San Francisco but they conveniently forget the Medical alerts issues affecting them and their families. I seriously feel that it is high time that the government took action to save the people of West Oakland.
ramon54's picture
I think it's great that they're trying to raise the awareness of this. Oakland is a beautiful place if you're looking in the right direction and is a great place to live. You're just the right distance from 'the city' without having to put up with as many of the nuances as you would as if you lived right in the city. There are lots of career development opportunities nearby too, which is always good, but especially in today's age.
attapon77's picture
“This is so much more powerful than sitting in a classroom and having someone talk at you," Parker said. "It's just 15 minutes away.”
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miaflo18's picture
I think that cars contribute to the pollution because of its poor parts being used in cars (being bought in some ford truck wheels stores online, I think that every car owners should buy car parts that does lesser gas emissions, or buying hybrid cars or EVs so that toxic emissions from cars can be lessen.
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I think that it is the time that the government should do some action to save the people of West Oakland

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I think that it is the time that the government should do some action to save the people of West Oakland
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The FPPC is also investigating the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, which failed to disclose more than $250,000 in contributions until after Election Day in 2008, and the Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County Republican parties, which were involved in the Berryhill transactions, FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter acknowledged Closet doors for bedrooms
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tufty's picture
Having lived near a main highway, this article rings true. The same could also be said for many neighbourhoods nationwide and in many parts of the world. It is our responsibility to curb our excessive pollution and give our children a healthier world.
Will Awnings's picture
I pray to God that nothing like this happens again. Oakland's a lovely part of the world, I just hope they never make the same mistakes again.

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