July 22–OAKLAND — For years, advocates at the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) have lamented the soot on their blinds and the hacking coughs that result from breathing in toxic diesel fumes spewing out of trucks as they enter and exit the Port of Oakland.
Now, two federal agencies — the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency — are launching a formal investigation into whether the city and the Port of Oakland are doing enough to mitigate air pollution in the neighborhood, which has historically been burdened by elevated levels of black carbon, nitric oxide and other toxic particles.
The WOEIP, a community nonprofit that has led the charge for decades in a quest for cleaner air, filed a complaint with the two agencies in April alleging the city and the port were discriminating against the predominantly black and brown residents, many of whom live below the area’s poverty line.
Specifically, the complaint claims the city has engaged in a “pattern of neglect and systemic disregard” for the health and well being of West Oakland residents, which will only get worse as the city redevelops the former Oakland Army base. And, it alleges the port’s continuous expansion of maritime activities has consistently failed to incorporate adequate measures to mitigate the elevated pollution levels.
“Time and time again, both the city and port have dismissed the consistent input and opposition to their actions from directly impacted West Oakland residents, nearly 80 percent of whom are people of color,” the complaint reads.
In a statement, Port of Oakland spokesman Mike Zampa rejected the group’s claims, saying the port takes air quality concerns “very seriously” and “works aggressively” to mitigate the impacts of air pollution for its West Oakland neighbors. A spokeswoman for the city of Oakland said it was not able to immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The port operates under comprehensive plans to reduce air emissions throughout its operations,” Zampa said. “The port’s efforts have resulted in significant reductions in diesel particulate emissions at its operations, and the port continues to work to further reduce emissions.”
Last October, the Port of Oakland celebrated a 75 percent drop in diesel particle emissions since 2015, with diesel truck soot dropping a whopping 98 percent and ship soot dropping 76 percent. The port initiated a clean truck program in 2009, requiring trucking companies to comply with state air quality regulations and banning big rigs that don’t meet the EPA’s 2007 engine emissions standards.
The results of the port’s report seemed to validate the program’s efficacy and echoed results from a 2014 study by Dr. Thomas Kirchstetter, an air quality scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley professor.
At the time, Kirchstetter noted that between 2009 and 2013, the median emission rate from diesel trucks operating at the port declined 76 percent for black carbon and the average emission rate for nitrogen oxides was down 53 percent.
But activities at the port have picked up in recent years, with a boost in exports at the port last year, terminal expansions and the increasing arrival of megaships. And the results from the port’s latest results were based on computer models, not actual samples, Zampa said.
Nor does it jive with results from a new, independent study released in June, said Brian Beveridge, co-founder of the WOEIP. For that study, researchers from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund teamed up with researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Google Earth Outreach. The team used Google street view mapping cars equipped with air pollution monitors to create a highly localized and precise picture of exactly where in West Oakland residents are most at risk of breathing dirty air.
The result was an incredibly detailed map showing block-by-block gradients in air pollution levels, something that made Beveridge question the port’s latest report.
“If all the trucks at the port are so clean,” he said, “how come there are elevated levels of pollution out there?”
Because both the port and the city receive funding from the EPA and DOT, which are bound by anti-discrimination laws, Beveridge said the group’s only recourse was to “follow the money.” It is asking the two agencies to intervene and make sense of the competing reports, as well as hopefully get some measures in place to protect West Oakland residents, he said.
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