West Oakland Advocates Unhappy With EPA, City Agreement on Dirty Air

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Trucks line up to enter a berth at the Port of Oakland on February 11, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After negotiating for two years, federal environmental officials reached a voluntary settlement with the city and Port of Oakland over a discrimination complaint related to West Oakland's dirty air.

The settlement outlines a series of goals to improve communication between the community, the city and the port. But Oakland and the port did not agree to any new substantive actions to reduce pollution, according to Earthjustice, which filed the complaint on behalf of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. As part of the agreement, the EPA did not find any discrimination, which the city has denied.

Michelle Ghafar, an associate attorney with Earthjustice, said advocates were "disappointed that this is the result of two years’ worth of negotiations. The EPA folks, the D.C. folks, they don’t really know what is happening on the ground here in West Oakland with the state of the air quality and diesel pollution.”

The West Oakland group lodged the complaint with the civil rights offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation in April 2017. Filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the complaint accused the city and port of a pattern of discrimination in the expansion of freight activity that increased pollution in the majority-black communities who live in West Oakland. Residents in those neighborhoods suffer some of the worst air quality in the Bay Area as well as some of the lowest life expectancies in the city.

The filing prompted the EPA's External Civil Rights Compliance Office to investigate whether Oakland was doing enough to prevent dangerous smog in the neighborhoods surrounding the port.

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In addition to the goals on fostering better communication between stakeholders, the settlement cites two plans adopted by the port in recent years, one to reduce emissions while investing in electric vehicles, and another to regulate truck traffic in the neighborhoods around West Oakland.

Plenty of 'Let's Talk'

While EPA and Oakland officials came to a resolution, the West Oakland group says it will do little to improve the health of residents.

“It lacks direct action,” said Brian Beveridge, an organizer with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. “There is plenty of, ‘Let’s talk and isn’t it great and we are going to work harder to make it better.’ But we would like to see some policy action.”

While Beveridge wanted more from the settlement, he said the process did improve the dialogue between his group and the port.

He said the group filed the complaint after pressuring the port for years to engage with residents about air pollution.

The office of Oakland's city attorney referred questions to the Port of Oakland. Mike Zampa, the port’s communications director, said in an emailed statement that its leaders are pleased to have reached a resolution with EPA.

He said the port is "serious" in its commitment to civil rights, and he pointed to the port's effort to curb emissions and manage traffic, as well as to the addition of a section on civil rights to its website.

Margot Perez-Sullivan, an EPA spokesperson, said in an email that the agency "will now monitor the City and the Port commitments set forth in the Agreement, as appropriate, to ensure its terms are fully implemented."

Poor Air Quality

West Oakland is bounded by interstate freeways and the port. Long before the current case, advocacy groups have noted punishing air pollution and high local asthma rates, which they say are caused by toxic diesel fumes belching from trucks driving in and out of the port.

The Port of Oakland, with its 1,300 acres of facilities and 18 deep-water berths, is the third busiest seaport in California and among the 10 busiest in the U.S. More than $59.2 billion in goods flows through its bustling docks.

Outside of the complaint process, Beveridge's group has worked with Oakland and the regional air quality regulator to craft an action plan to address the toxic air in West Oakland.

A draft of the plan is open for public comment. Beveridge said his group is hosting a community meeting about the plan on Aug. 17 at 10 a.m. at the West Oakland Youth Center.

"Ultimately this is about reducing the impacts of the freight industry at the Port of Oakland and the freight industry that is in residence in West Oakland, to reduce those impacts on the people of this community," he said.

"We are looking forward to the process leading to something, we just don’t see that in the settlement."

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