By Vien Truong

Let’s start with one undisputed reality: Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods have long been used as environmental dumping grounds, sites for the sorts of facilities that wealthier communities don’t want. It’s not an accident that there are no oil refineries in Mill Valley or Beverly Hills, or freeways running through Pacific Heights. Those sorts of things usually end up where people have less money and less political clout.

Oakland is no exception. If you look at the maps generated by CalEnviroScreen – the state of California’s tool for identifying communities with the worst pollution and greatest economic needs – the orange and red colors that designate the most troubled areas slice right through the heart of our city. These include neighborhoods located along International Boulevard and the 880 freeway to the east and in the sections of West Oakland surrounded by the 880, 980 and 580.

That’s not a surprise. A few years ago, the California Air Resources Board examined pollution in West Oakland and identified a number of major sources of smog in the area, and they’re pretty much what you’d expect: Trucks, cars and buses – especially diesel trucks and buses — traveling the freeways and heading toward the port, locomotives coming in and out of the Union Pacific Oakland Railyard, other diesel equipment at the port and railyard, and ships in the port. As you might guess, diesel particulates from these facilities are a major problem for our air.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that help is on the way – not just for Oakland, but for polluted and economically struggling neighborhoods from San Bernardino to Fresno to our own back yard. That help is coming from smart, sensible policies to combat climate change, charge polluters for the garbage they put into our air, and use that money to promote clean energy and bring both cleaner air and good jobs to neighborhoods hit first and worst by pollution and global warming. There are lots of potential projects in Oakland that need some of this funding – projects that could help clean our air, bring jobs to our city and make our neighborhoods more attractive.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, it’s real. A few years ago the California Legislature passed AB 32 (Nunez/Pavley), officially dubbed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which limits the amount of junk that can be put into our air and charges polluters for the pollution the produce. The Greenlining Institute joined with other advocates to sponsor follow-up legislation, SB 535 (de Leon), that guarantees that one quarter of those funds go to projects that benefit highly polluted and economically challenged communities, with a minimum of 10 percent going to projects actually located within those communities.

This is serious money — $272 million in the current fiscal year, with much more to come – and these dollars will start to roll out in the coming months. But the struggle isn’t over.

Big Oil – via its trade organization, the Western States Petroleum Association, and assorted front groups pretending to represent consumers – is still fighting to kill California’s climate change and clean energy laws. They’re leaning hard on our legislators to weaken the law even as I write this.

But we’re fighting back. In part II next week I’ll explain more about how California’s clean energy policy is already helping California neighborhoods, the potential benefits for Oakland, and the campaign we’re launching to protect these life-saving laws from Big Oil.

 

Oakland resident Vien Truong is Environmental Equity director at The Greenlining Institute, a racial justice institute that works to bring the American Dream within reach of all, regardless of race or income. 

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