By Ali Winston

California Watch


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.

On February 21, 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A stretch of steel plants once lined the Parkway up to the Emeryville border – they have since been replaced by artists' studios, although the ground pollution from industry has not been remediated.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.”


Ali Winston is a second-year student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He also a freelance reporter working with a number of outlets, including California Watch, where this piece was 1st published.   

In May of 2009, Newsdesk,org, Spot,us and Oakland Local spent two months investigating West Oakland's abnormally high toxicity levels and the causes around it. You can read the Toxic Tour Series here.

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