Air Pollution Controversy Swirls Around Oakland Army Base Development

Jahvonn Mair was only 4 when he was diagnosed last year with asthma. He’s still so tiny that his inhaler apparatus is half as big as his head, and his twice-daily doses have slipped into his everyday routine alongside watching cartoons and playing with a favorite stuffed monkey named George.

Jahvonn lives in West Oakland, a neighborhood clogged with air pollution from the surrounding freeways and the Port of Oakland. Residents here are twice as likely to go to the emergency room with asthma as people in Alameda County overall. They’re also more likely to die of cancer, heart disease or lung disease — all illnesses with known links to polluted air.

Now officials and activists are tussling over a massive development project underway right next door, at the decommissioned Oakland Army Base. The project promises to bring much-needed jobs and economic benefits to Oakland and beyond. But health officials fear it could worsen the already toxic air in West Oakland, sticking residents with more than their fair share of the burden.

Hope and Risk

Hopes for the remade former base, decommissioned in 1999, are high. The city and the port are turning about 300 acres of it into a modern trade and logistics hub right next to the current port.


Once it’s up and running in 2020, the new trade center will have an additional shipping terminal, a bigger rail yard and ample facilities for handling and sorting cargo. It will give the port area the capacity to handle hundreds of thousands more cargo containers each year. And the city predicts it will provide at least 2,000 new jobs, plus an economic boost reaching into the American Midwest.

“The Oakland Army Base was an economic engine for West Oakland especially, and Oakland and the region generally,” says Fred Blackwell, Oakland’s interim city administrator. “So the notion of bringing it back and having it be an economic engine for the neighborhood and the city once again … is pretty exciting.”

The need for jobs is real — in the city and in this neighborhood in particular. West Oakland’s unemployment rate is typically higher than the city’s overall, which dipped below 10 percent at the end of last year. With that in mind, city officials placed a job recruiting center for the Army Base project at 18th and Adeline streets, smack in the middle of West Oakland.

Every day at the Port of Oakland trucks line up for 7-8 hours waiting to unload their trucks onto the diesel ships. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Every day at the Port of Oakland trucks line up for seven or eight  hours waiting to unload their cargo onto the ships. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED) ( Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

So what’s the potential harm?

Construction, which began last fall, will require heavy-duty diesel trucks and construction vehicles to make tens of thousands of trips to and from the site. And the new trade center will ultimately host a lot more freight activity than the port alone does today — all of which takes fuel.

Proponents point out that the impact will be somewhat offset by the efficiency of shifting more cargo from trucks to trains. Still, the project’s official environmental analysis predicts that it will “significantly and unavoidably” expose nearby residents to toxic air pollutants.

In a worst-case scenario, the analysis says the project could raise a West Oaklander’s lifetime risk of cancer by close to 100 cases per 1 million people.

That number might sound small. But local activists and health officials argue that West Oakland — a community that's about half African-American and 85 percent nonwhite, where residents make about half the county’s average household income — is already bearing an unfair burden. Public health studies have found that the life expectancy for someone born and raised in West Oakland is at least 15 years less than someone born and raised in the Oakland Hills.

The health problems are not all because of air pollution. Still, David Vintze, the air quality planning manager at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, says West Oakland can’t take any more.

“Our own studies have shown a two to three times increase in the amount of pollution in that community versus any other place in the Bay Area,” Vintze says. “That community is already too overburdened to be saturated with more particulate matter.”

Jahvonn lives in the Ironhorse apartment building on 14th Street, literally next door to Interstate 880 and directly across the freeway from the Army base. He calls his asthma attacks “heart attacks” and says they make his stomach hurt.

His mom, Charlotte Lynn, keeps him indoors more often since his diagnosis. When he does go outside, it’s often to the second-floor courtyard of his apartment building, where he and his friends ride bikes within direct view of the interstate. Many of them also have asthma.

Standing by the courtyard’s railing, Lynn watches one tractor-trailer truck after another drive by, leaving the port of today. “All you can see is trucks on the freeway,” she says. “That’s it, trucks, trucks, trucks. See? There’s another one.”

What Is Enough?

Health concerns notwithstanding, everyone, including Vintze, wants the Army base project to go on. What’s disputed is whether the city is doing enough to limit emissions and protect West Oakland residents such as Jahvonn.

Blackwell points to a thick air-quality plan, dozens of pages long and required by state law, and says: “I think we have gone about as far as we can go to try to mitigate these issues while still having a viable project.”

Vintze, along with the Alameda County Public Health Department and local environmental activists, disagrees.

“There has to be some other things put into place in order to limit the impact of what they’re going to do,” says county Public Health Director Muntu Davis.

The city is doing more than the law demands in at least one regard, by requiring heavy construction vehicles, like backhoes, to install cleaner engine technology a year ahead of the state’s mandated schedule (though for some vehicles that’s still not for another two to four years).

But air quality and public health authorities wanted the city to go further. They asked Oakland officials to require diesel filters on all the trucks hauling materials to the construction site, as trucks serving the port must have. The city said no. The City Council had voted to require that fully half the labor for this project come from Oakland, officials explained. And if they required expensive filters, they’d squeeze out too many small, independent Oakland truckers.

“The West Oakland community, it’s their health, it’s their life,” says Vintze. “It shouldn’t be minimized for profit.”

Phil Tagami is an Oakland native, CEO of California Capital and Investment Group, and the project developer. He points out that he’s already meeting or exceeding the legal requirements for air quality control, and calls the regulators who are complaining about the project “rogue individuals” who have become overzealous in their oversight role.

“There are a handful of shake-down people who want to ring the bell and argue and complain that something more can be done, but I haven’t seen them create many jobs,” he says. “Yelling at the rain is not going to make the rain stop.”

It is, indeed, not stopping. Vintze and others have basically given up on further changing the construction plans. Now they’re hoping to get stronger protections into the plan for trade center operations in 2020.

In Jahvonn Mair's preschool class of 22 students, 7 have been diagnosed with asthma and use an inhaler. Here they display their inhalers. From left to right, Akirah Armstrong, (behind) Adrian Kemp, RiJai Malone, Omarr Daniel (front), Jahvonn Mair and Sarquan Holland. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
In Jahvonn Mair's preschool class of 22 students, seven have been diagnosed with asthma and use an inhaler. Here they display their inhalers. From left to right, Akirah Armstrong, (behind) Adrian Kemp, RiJai Malone, Omarr Daniel (front), Jahvonn Mair and Sarquan Holland. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

“This community has suffered egregiously at the hands of the freight industry,” says Brian Beveridge, who lives in West Oakland and co-directs a local environmental group, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. “We deserve better than to just be told, ‘Well, we’re all going to do the best we can not to break the law.’ ”

To soothe some community fears, the developer installed three air-quality monitors around West Oakland and publishes the data daily, online. One of the monitors is on the roof of Jahvonn Mair’s school, Prescott Elementary.

Even if pollution spikes, though, the city acknowledges that the devices aren’t precise enough to show whether the construction is the cause. And there’s nothing in writing that says what the developer must do to correct it. Instead, says Blackwell, the city administrator, the monitors’ main purpose is to tell if overall pollution in the neighborhood rises or falls over time.

The Unknowns

Tagami and other proponents argue that the project could actually pave the way for cleaner air in West Oakland in the long run. It’ll enable companies to handle more cargo on site, instead of trucking it around the region for processing. And it could bring electric power to some cranes and docked ships instead of having them burn diesel. In fact, the California Transportation Commission, which is putting up nearly half the cost of the $500 million project, based its grant in part on the promise of cleaner air.

Even so, it’s impossible to predict now whether those improvements will be enough to totally counteract the emissions coming from ships, trains and trucks moving many tons more cargo each year.

Beveridge says he hopes it will but — like the promise of economic benefits for West Oakland — he’ll believe it when he sees it.

“There’s an old saying. ... A rising tide raises all boats,” he says. “That’s great if you have a boat. But if you don’t have a boat, a rising tide just sooner or later goes above your nose and you’re finished.”

For now, across the interstate, Charlotte Lynn keeps the windows closed to the traffic. She says she wants to move her son to a healthier place, but she earns just over $1,000 a month as a part-time certified nurse assistant, and the Oakland Housing Authority says it doesn’t have the money to move her right now. She’s applying to the Housing Authority for a medical exception.


“I want to move ASAP,” she says, an urgency in her voice. “I want to get out of here. … But there’s nothing I can do, I have to stay here. You know how they say some people get stuck in certain places? We’re stuck.”