West Oakland air pollution disproportionately affects Black, Latino residents, report finds

Julian Glover Image
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Report finds inequities in air quality for this Bay Area neighborhood
Here's why West Oakland Black and Latino residents have worse health outcomes from air pollution and what's being done to fix it.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- ABC Owned Television Stations launched the Equity Report this week to track and measure racial equity in neighborhoods across 100 of the largest U.S. cities. The results reveal grave inequities in air quality in the Bay Area, with West Oakland residents facing worse health outcomes than almost all other Alameda County residents.

According to an analysis from our ABC7 Data Team using 2014 EPA numbers part of the Equity Report, residents living within 10 miles of I-880 have, on average, twice the cancer risk and are almost twice as likely to develop respiratory illnesses than those living the same distance from I-580 where trucks are banned.

MORE: Our America Equity Report

"The pollution levels in West Oakland over the last 50 years have really devastated this community," said Ms. Margaret Gordon.

Gordon, a longtime West Oakland resident, would know.

The 75-year-old has led the fight to clear the air in her neighborhood near the Port of Oakland with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project for decades, all starting with questions.

"Why was this truck on my block? Why is (soot from diesel fuel) in our homes?" asked Gordon. "I have two grandchildren who are asthmatic. Right now, it's under control but I don't want to go back to that."

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At Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland, parents there are also concerned about their kid's health.

"(He has) a little bit of asthma, a little bit of coughing, shortness of breath when he's running around," parent Troy Hill said of his five-year-old son who uses an inhaler.

Children younger than five in West Oakland are one and a half times more likely to be sent to the emergency room with severe asthma than other parts of Alameda County, according to a 2016 report from the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Kids in East Oakland, Emeryville, and west Berkeley also saw higher rates of asthma hospitalizations. These areas are situated along parts of the I-880 corridor.

"America is segregated and so is pollution," said Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.

Bullard is known as the 'father of environmental justice' for his groundbreaking work studying the inequities in environmental influences on health. His work dating back to the 1970s reveals race and class still matter and map closely with pollution and vulnerability.

"You tell me your zip code, I can tell you how healthy you are. You can have zip codes that are adjacent to each other and find a life expectancy of a differential of 10 to 15 years," said Dr. Bullard.

VIDEO: 'Our America: Equity Report - The Conversation': Hear from those who created the Equity Report

In West Oakland, life expectancy is seven and a half years lower than the Alameda County average, according to county health data.

Comparing two East Bay freeways -- I-880 and I-580 -- shows why.

I-880 is dotted with big rig trucks carrying goods most hours of the day to and from the Port of Oakland, one of the ten busiest ports in the country. The route takes the trucks through the flatlands, where they exit near 7th Street in West Oakland. The neighborhood is home to more Black and Latino residents with lower household incomes than neighborhoods along I-580, according to 2020 census numbers.

Diesel particulate matter or DPM from this heavy-duty truck traffic is associated with almost half of the cancer risk for West Oakland residents, according to the 2019 "Owning Our Air: The West Oakland Community Action Plan" report published by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

On and along I-580 there's a much different picture -- only commuter traffic is allowed.

According to Caltrans, trucks have been banned dating back to 1951, before I-580 was an interstate and was known only as MacArthur Blvd.

Trucks heavier than four and a half tons are prohibited on I-580 by state law from Grand Avenue in Oakland for a nearly nine-mile stretch to Foothill Blvd. in San Leandro. The highway snakes through the East Bay Hills, which is home to weather and more white residents where there is a longer life expectancy.

"The neighborhoods that surround I-580 experience substantially less pollution from trucks. That truck ban has led to a displacement of pollution into communities of color," said Josh Apte, assistant professor of environmental engineering and environmental health sciences at U.C. Berkeley.

The West Oakland Health Council has been serving the community for more than 50 years. Dr. Adrian James has been caring for patients there for the last 26 years and sees the health impacts firsthand.

"That is very hard to bear because there's so much we can do. The number of children going to the ER and being newly diagnosed with asthma has gone up. And the question becomes why," said Dr. James.

Apte set out to answer that question.

"That history of regional segregation of housing is one of the big things that drives the disparities in air pollution that we see here in the Bay Area," he said.

This is especially true for historically redlined communities like West Oakland, where government maps made in the 1930s determined where racial and ethnic groups could purchase homes based on who banks would loan to and who they didn't.

The legacy is still alive today.

"On average, Black and Hispanic people experience air pollutant concentrations that can be up to 30%, higher than average. Meanwhile, white people experienced levels that are about 15% lower than average," said Apte.

It's a snapshot difficult to capture by the Air District's scattered air monitors. There are 30 in total across the Bay Area.

To better understand the differences in the quality of the air we breathe, the Air District contracted San Francisco-based air pollution research company Aclima.

The company collaborated with Apte, Google, and the Environmental Defense Fund, to map differences in air quality block by block.

"From one block to the next air pollutants can have concentrations that differ by a factor of five to eight," said Dr. Meghan Thurlow, Vice President of sensing systems and applied sciences at Aclima.

Thurlow and her team outfitted low emission vehicles with multiple air pollution sensors to gather hyperlocal measurements every second while the cars drove down Bay Area streets.

The study led to the creation of maps generated by tens of thousands of trips over the course of three years showing the concentration of air pollutants like black carbon spewed from diesel-burning heavy duty trucks.

MORE: How to use the Equity Report

Maps of West Oakland show a deep purple color closer to the Port of Oakland and I-880 revealing higher levels of dangerous pollutants.

"That means that the diesel emissions, which are a major contributor to the pollution burden in a place like West Oakland, are sequestered closer to the I-880 corridor," said Thurlow.

The hope is that these block-by-block air quality maps help inform decisions that lead to solutions.

It's a process now required by law thanks to AB-617 signed by Governor Brown in 2017.

The law requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to work with regional regulators like the Air District and local groups like the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) to implement fixes. The ideas come directly from the people.

"The game-changer is that you have data based from the streets, not from air," said Gordon. "Then you also get to challenge land use, you get to challenge proximity, you get to challenge businesses (and say) 'You got to redirect this truck traffic here.' Those kinds of things we never had before."

One of the key targets of West Oakland's Owning our Air plan, adopted thru AB-617, is paving the way for each West Oakland block to breathe equally clean air by 2030.

That will require the Port of Oakland to become cleaner and greener.

"We started in 2008 with our maritime air quality policy statement, our board set a very ambitious target to reduce diesel particulate matter emissions by 85% from port sources," said Richard Sinkoff, director of environmental programs and planning at the Port of Oakland.

Sinkoff said in the decades since the Port of Oakland has shown close to an 81% reduction in diesel particulate matter emissions.

"The biggest challenge is technology. A lot of the technology is still under development. We want to make sure that the technology is ready for use when we put it on a terminal," he said.

Some of the zero-emissions technology is ready and it's being tested incrementally before a complete overhaul.

Within the last year, the Port has converted more than a dozen yard cranes to hybrid-electric engines.

The massive green cranes tower 90-feet into the sky and are used to move heavy cargo containers brought to port by cargo ships.

The old engines guzzled 13 gallons of diesel fuel an hour, while the new hybrid-electric engines use only three-quarters of a gallon of diesel fuel at the same time, according to a Port spokesperson.

Ten fully electric work trucks to move containers around the port are also being tried out to see if the batteries are up to the test.

Reliance on electricity also poses challenges.

The Port has invested millions of dollars in technology that allows cargo ships to be powered by electricity while docked, but on Flex Alert days when the California Independent System Operator calls for reduced electric use to avoid power outages, the ships won't be able to rely on electricity and will have to burn hazardous bunker fuel instead.

"That does create, for that moment, a bit of a spike in the diesel emissions," said Sinkoff.

The changes happening at the port are promising, but they will take time.

"For someone who is suffering, it can never happen fast enough. We take that very, very seriously. We absolutely acknowledge for any child that has asthma, any parent that's in an ER, that's a traumatic event. And to the extent that all of us are concerned about public health, we have to acknowledge that," Sinkoff added. "At the same time, the efforts that we have made at the port to bring down those emissions by 85% really do contribute to improvements in health status in West Oakland. The port also is not the only contributor. If you've been in West Oakland, you've seen that the area is surrounded by freeways."

As for changes that could happen immediately, Ms. Margaret is in favor of lifting the I-580 truck ban, which would require a reversal of state law passed in 2000.

"Yes, it should be lifted. So we can take some of this congestion off this end of the community. I don't want nobody else's mother or grandmother to have to sit up all night with a kid coughing and crying," said Gordon.

"I would love to see that change," said James, "Can we at least decrease the volume of trucks that come through here?" he asked.

Rebecca Kaplan, Vice Mayor elected to represent the entire city in the Oakland City Council, thinks the ban should be revisited.

"One of the ways to fix (the problem) is to shift to zero-emission trucks. But the underlying inequity of where they're placed in the first place absolutely needs to be part of the conversation," said Kaplan.

"The injustice and the racial prejudice are intertwined with the lack of focus on fixing it. So when we say we need the state and other partners to help more with zero-emission trucks, the fact that the pollution has been concentrated on lower-income communities and communities of color is part of why people have felt less pressure to fix it," she added.

"It's about I-580 versus I-880, but it's also about where we place environmental burdens, and whether we're going to move away from a model where more disadvantaged communities are forced to accept greater environmental risks in our country," said Apte.

No one solution will bring us closer to a zero-emissions future where the air in all of our communities is safe to breathe, but each one of us can help create that future block by block.

"Join an organization and get your organization to understand you don't have to be the expert in air quality and air monitoring or chemical safety. But if you breathe air, drink water, eat food, and you're concerned about those three things, you are an environmentalist. You just may not know it," said Bullard. "So I'd say wake up, and let's get busy."