'A Lesson in Discrimination': A Toxic Sea Level Rise Crisis Threatens West Oakland

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A black woman with a blue jacket, baseball hat and long ear sits on a bench. A white semi-truck passes behind.
Community activist Margaret Gordon sits on a bench in West Oakland with the BART tracks behind her on March 4, 2022, as a semi truck stops on 7th Street, on a popular trucking route to the nearby Port of Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story is part of KQED's series, "Sacrifice Zones: Bay Area Shoreline Communities Reimagining Their Homes in the Face of the Climate Emergency." The project looks at communities of color facing the worst of rising seas and fighting to thrive. Read more of KQED's reparations coverage.

Toxic waste lurking in the soil under West Oakland neighborhoods is the next environmental threat in this community already burdened by pollution.

The stability of buried contamination from Oakland's industrial past relies on it staying in place in the soil. But once the rising waters of San Francisco Bay press inland and get underneath these pockets of chemicals and gases, a certain amount of that waste will not stay in place. Instead, it will begin to move.

More than 100 sites — colorless gases in dirt under schools, flammable chemicals buried in shallow soil near parks, petroleum in pockets of groundwater from iron manufacturing — lie in wait.

Human-caused climate change is already forcing this groundwater rise in West Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area. UC Berkeley and UCLA scientists warn that plumes of waste will migrate underground along unpredictable pathways, exposing communities of color to contamination decades before floods gush over the industrial shoreline.

"These are environmental health issues that need to be addressed now," said UC Berkeley's Rachel Morello-Frosch, a lead researcher with Toxic Tides, a project that maps contamination in the path of sea level rise across California.

The toxic waste and pollution in West Oakland are a result of the legacy of racism in housing, economic and other policies over decades. Residents didn't consent to living in these conditions. Now they're demanding to be significant players in any climate resilience plans.

Sitting on a park bench in front of her second-story apartment, Margaret Gordon, a 75-year-old Black woman with a powerful legacy of environmental advocacy, said the threat from underground toxics only adds to the neighborhood's severe environmental hardships. Across the Bay Area and, in fact, the world, climate change disproportionately affects communities of color like West Oakland.

Wearing a gold-flecked denim baseball cap and a long navy skirt, Gordon described how three freeways box in the roughly 23,000 people living in this industrial landscape, three-quarters of them people of color living with the strain of low wages, high housing costs and the poor health that comes from increased exposure to pollution.

"There's tons of pollutants, or toxics, in the ground," Gordon said as a BART train zipped by and a line of semi trucks spewed fumes on the way to the Port of Oakland. "You cannot put up a garden without having your soil tested."

Gordon founded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to demand environmental justice for people of color here. It's not surprising that West Oakland is one of the Bay Area cities most at risk from groundwater rise.

"It still comes down to race," Gordon said.

A view from the water of high-rise buildings beneath a pale blue sky. Along the waterfront are piles of scrap metal and industrial pipes. Between the scrap metal and the water is an embankment of rock. In the distant background are wooded hills.
Downtown Oakland can be seen behind piles of scrap metal at a manufacturing facility at the Port of Oakland on March 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As a resident of a historically Black community, Gordon sees climate justice as a form of reparations, a payment in money and services to repair the harm of conscious decisions, such as government leaders allowing toxic industries to operate in the neighborhood, devaluing the lives of Black people.

"The reparation movement is the next level of civil rights," said Gordon. "We should not be in a position of just surviving. We should be thriving."

A dangerous game of inches

On the northernmost edge of the neighborhood, about a half-mile from San Francisco Bay, a row of new, charcoal-gray and white condominiums rise above a black iron fence and a border of trees. Nearby, traffic zooms along Interstate 880, and a historic train station — also a contaminated site — speaks to the city's industrial past. In 1880, the Oakland shoreline ran through this section before infill expanded the landscape, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The area, like most of West Oakland, is flat. Between these homes and the bay are at least three hazardous sites — including a partially cleaned-up old Army base and water treatment plant — contaminated with petroleum, volatile organic compounds and other industrial waste.

Gordon said these homes could "be the first victims of sea level rise."

People in West Oakland largely don't understand that this looming disaster is under their feet because, according to Gordon, they have enough to do simply to meet their basic needs. The median annual income for Black West Oakland residents is about $30,000, a third of the median income that white people earn in the neighborhood, according to Oakland's Race and Equity Baseline Indicators Report from 2019.

California climate policy measures sea level rise in feet. Entire Bay Area shorelines could be swamped by 10.1 feet of brackish water by 2100 in extreme scenarios, according to an assessment the state conducted in 2017. But scientists say it won't take feet to loosen toxic contaminants in West Oakland's soil and render them dangerous to humans.

As bay waters rise and threaten flooding over the land, it presses a layer of salty water in under the land. This salty water seeps in below the existing groundwater, pushing it upward until, at some point, it touches contaminated soil.

Groundwater rise, then, is a dangerous game of inches, according to Kristina Hill, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley. Very subtle changes to the shallow groundwater can pressure and crack sewer pipes, while chemicals can corrode them.

As contaminants begin to move, they can spread toxics already in the soil, releasing poisonous gases that flow in and around these pipes. Those gases can enter homes, schools and businesses through cracked plumbing seals, poisoning residents. Methane, a gas that's released when petroleum products break down, can even explode with an errant spark.

"There are going to be real health risks," Hill said.

West Oakland hazardous sites and sea level rise in 2100

Use your mouse to move different directions on the map. Use the + and - signs to zoom in and out. Click on the magnifying glass at the bottom to search for a specific address. Click on the down arrow, at the top right of the legend, to collapse the legend. Sources: Climate Central, UCLA, UC Berkeley, USGS, CA Department of Toxic Substances Control, State Water Resources Control Board.

West Oakland got a glimpse of this in 2020 when the Oakland Unified School District shut down McClymonds High School for a week after officials found trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing chemical, in the groundwater under the school. Officials were concerned the chemicals could vaporize and waft into the air that students and teachers were breathing.

State and county officials confirmed the contaminants possibly came from the five active cleanup sites within half a mile of the school.

"That's the kind of situation that's going to occur," Hill said. "It's exacerbated by a rising water table. We could find mystery plumes in lots of places that weren't being tracked and that suddenly show up under the cracked concrete slab floor of a high school. That's what I worry about."

The image shows a wide strip of pavement with a long line of semi-trucks on the right side. In the distance ahead are cranes at the Port of Oakland. Puffy clouds hover in the pale blue sky.
Trucks line up to receive their freight at the Port of Oakland on April 12, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What does cleanup mean now?

There are 138 contaminated sites in West Oakland — junkyards, dry cleaners, auto shops and even a former ice cream factory — that either have never been cleaned up, or are in some state of active remediation, according to a KQED analysis of hazardous sites in online catalogs maintained by the state through its water board and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Of the hazardous sites, 82 are under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The agency is well aware of the compounding issues of toxics in soil and groundwater rise, Alec Naugle, the board's toxics cleanup manager, said.

"We have to break those 82 sites down, look at those various scenarios, and then, using our enforcement authority, direct specific actions," he said.

Actions could include accelerating cleanups by 10 to 20 years and imposing stricter conditions for cleanup. Naugle said his team has sent letters to some landowners who need to factor in groundwater rise in cleanup plans. The agency rejected one application for a "cleaned up" status at a former petroleum refinery close to the bay.

"Denying closure to a property owner who needs that to maybe sell the property becomes a really important, powerful tool that we can use," he said.

The agency is also partnering with Pathways Climate Institute and the San Francisco Estuary Institute to forecast how groundwater will move into low-lying areas of Alameda, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. That research is slated to be released in the coming months.

In an emailed statement, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, said it couldn't comment on the number or severity of active sites. The agency said it is developing guidance for sites and project managers "to ensure that remedies at contaminated sites are resilient now and into the future."

DTSC director Meredith Williams said in an interview that the agency is prioritizing the places with the heaviest environmental burden.

"There are, for instance, abandoned dry cleaners all over the state," she said. "They've led to groundwater plumes of solvents, and we're identifying where our opportunities are to clean up those sites."

Williams said her staff has had some racial equity training to begin understanding why environmental justice matters.

"A lot of our staff really don't understand what the communities are like. They don't understand the impacts of redlining," she said. "These are things that, once people understand them, can lead to empathy for what it is that these communities are experiencing."

'Dumping ground'

West Oakland became an industrial powerhouse some 150 years ago when the transcontinental railroad ended its long journey at this edge of the bay. Over time, shipbuilding, metal foundries and manufacturing filled the small corner of Oakland, followed later by gas stations, dry cleaners and auto yards.

Racist home-lending policies such as redlining relegated Black people to this neighborhood, preventing them from seeking housing outside the industrialized area.

"In Oakland, where there has been redlining is exactly where all the toxic sites are," said Phoenix Armenta, who is mixed-race and the regional resilience manager with the environmental group Gordon runs.

A person wearing stripes, a mask and gardening gloves carries a large while walking in a marsh ecosystem.
Phoenix Armenta collects weeds during a community habitat restoration day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline on March 31, 2022.

Black people born in West Oakland are likely to die 15 years earlier than white people born in the Oakland hills, according to a 2008 health assessment from the Alameda County Public Health Department. They're also five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, three times more likely to die of stroke and twice as likely to die of cancer.

West Oakland has been the economic engine of the city, yet residents are victims of racist policies that expose them to life-threatening environmental pollution without their consent, said Dorothy Lazard, a Black woman who grew up in the neighborhood and retired last year as the managing librarian of the Oakland History Center.

"It is a lesson in discrimination, disregard and diminishment of a population that helped build the city," she said.

In the late 1940s, West Oakland was named among the city's top blighted areas in an Oakland Planning Commission study. The authors wrote that neighborhoods like West Oakland were "grim" and "ugly" because of deteriorating buildings, overcrowding and limited housing. Local and federal policies worsened the blight, Lazard said, by seizing land through eminent domain and destroying homes and businesses for freeways, public housing and a BART station. The government-sanctioned actions conspicuously decimated a historic Black neighborhood.

The image is of the inside of a card with many handwritten notes thinking the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and Margaret Gordon for her work on environmental justice.
Thank-you notes to Margaret Gordon and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project line a bookshelf at the West Oakland office on April 12, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"Claiming things through eminent domain is commensurate with colonialism," Lazard said. "It's like saying we can use this as our dumping ground because we've already devalued this space and the people within this space."

The racism inherent in those decisions makes West Oakland a fairly typical community of color, where financial gain is "pitted against the needs of the people," Margaretta Lin wrote in a critical history of West Oakland published in 2007. "The rules of the game have been structured in such a technocratic and legalistic way that community voices are rarely consulted or heard."

Lin teaches racial justice in planning and public policy at UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning, and its Future Histories Lab. In an interview, she said West Oakland residents didn't approve of the policies that negatively affect their lives and health.

"They didn't have consent about what kind of industries were going to go where, right?" she said. "They didn't have consent about where freeways were going to be developed. All that came about because of racism and the lack of political power."

Today, housing prices are soaring in West Oakland, and new construction peppers the neighborhood.

"Demographically, things are changing, and you can buy a million-dollar house in West Oakland, which never had happened before when it was predominantly African American," Lazard said.

Mitchell Schwarzer, who wrote "Hella Town," a book on the history of Oakland, said the city needs to preserve a large percentage of housing for residents who have lived in West Oakland for decades. But, he said, that means Oakland leaders must grapple with tough questions about prioritizing people of color who have been "subject to real egregious damage."

"How do you make sure that those people don't get screwed over a second time?" he said. "That's really what we're talking about."

'Let's talk about reparations'

The racism that shaped the economic and community life of West Oakland persists, according to Brandi T. Summers, a UC Berkeley geography professor.

"It's so present that we can't ignore it," she said. "We can't believe that we can extract race from this conversation at all."

The term "equity" has emerged as a dominant force for change at every policy level. Equity, however, isn't a word Gordon uses to describe what's needed for climate justice in West Oakland, because it's not big enough.

"Don't talk to me about equity anymore," she said. "Let's talk about reparations."

A state task force on reparations is studying ways to repair the harm that emanates from enslavement and post-emancipation systemic racism. For Gordon, reparations recommendations should include cleaning up toxic sites, access to affordable housing, better health care, economic opportunities and power in planning decisions about climate resilience.

"We would have long-standing sustainability," she said. "I would know there's going to be housing for my children and grandchildren, so there'll be a job for them."

The image shows a street party with Black people mingling and sitting at tables covered with white cloths. There are various beverages on the table. A man on a horse leans in to talk with the people. He's wearing blue jeans, a light blue cotton shirt and a pale cream cowboy hat. Behind the people is a white bouncy house. In the background of the photo is a cream-colored church with a tall, pointed tower.
Donnell McAlister and his horse JJ, named after Jesse James, ride through a Juneteenth block party to celebrate the opening of the Women of the Black Panther Party Mini Museum in West Oakland on June 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Reparations would also mean environmental justice, says Rev. Ken Chambers, a third-generation pastor currently leading the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in a small, tan rectangular building in the southwest corner of the neighborhood.

"A community with fresh breathing air, not consumed by diesel truck traffic, ship traffic, smog" could develop green-tech jobs that pay good wages and also help the environment, according to Chambers, who is Black.

Reparations that bolster the local economy, improve air quality and raise overall health could equal potential freedom from the tendrils of enslavement even as the climate emergency worsens, said Maya Carrasquillo, a UC Berkeley environmental engineering professor.

"The full freedom to say, 'I can leave or I can stay,'" she said. "Or, 'I have the freedom, the values and the finances to be able to make the future I want.'"

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