New emissions rules expected to improve West Oakland air quality

Click on a zipcode above to see rates of emergency room visits for asthma. Darker regions have higher rates. In California, 48 out of 10,000 emergency department visits are due to asthma. West Oakland is well above the state average. Source: California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, 2009. Map by Justine Quart.

West Oaklanders will breathe easier—literally—in the coming months as they start to feel the effects of recently implemented emissions regulations for trucks at the Port of Oakland. The first phase went into effect in 2010, and tougher rules are on the horizon for early 2014. The regulations are applauded by health experts, who link diesel exhaust to high rates of asthma, but others say these strict rules could put thousands of truck drivers out of work.

Andre Ernest in his West Oakland bike shop. Ernest suffers from asthma. Photo by Justine Quart.

On most afternoons in West Oakland, a steady stream of semi-trucks drive in and out of the port at Adeline Street, heading under the highway 880 overpass and crossing 7th Street, transporting goods from ships to their next destination. The 18-wheelers come in red, blue, off-white, bright green and even the occasional shiny gold. But they all emit the same sharp odor of burning diesel—a distinct, caustic and sometimes overpowering smell that lingers in the air after a big truck drives by.

A few blocks west of the port entrance, Andre Ernest sits behind the counter of his bike shop on the corner of 7th and Peralta and talks about the ever-present pollution. “Some days, I just have to close the door to my shop,” Ernest said. “Hot days are the worst. It just drops down on you.”

Ernest, a co-owner of Bikes 4 Life, is a West Oakland native. He moved away from the neighborhood about 15 years ago when he developed asthma. He now lives with his family in East Oakland, but returns to the area most days for work.

“Coming to work, some days are really rough,” he said. “I love West Oakland. But when I go home, I can breathe.”

The rail yard in West Oakland. Photo by Justine Quart.

The 20,000 plus residents of West Oakland—who live between three major highways, the port and the Union Pacific Rail Yard—inhale some of the most polluted air in the Bay Area. The air in this neighborhood contains three times more diesel air pollution than the average levels in the region, according to a 2008 report from the Alameda County Public Health Department titled “Life and Death from Unnatural Causes.

The American Lung Association recently reported that the San Francisco area is no longer on the list of the top 25 most polluted regions in the nation. The association’s annual State of the Air Report shows that Bay Area counties have made progress in reducing air pollution, but the San Francisco metro area—which includes Oakland—is still ranked the 27th worst for fine particle pollution, including diesel emissions.

Ships delivering goods to the port, cranes offloading containers, 18-wheelers transporting containers from port to rail yard—these all operate on diesel fuel and emit fine particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in length or less, known as PM 2.5. These particles are so small that they can slip past the vocal cords and deep into a person’s lungs. Exposure to this diesel pollution has been linked with high rates of asthma and cancer among West Oakland residents, according to a 2008 study from the California Air Resources Board.

Stricter emissions regulations could reduce the amount of diesel particle pollution in the air. Photo by Justine Quart.

“Diesel exhaust is not good for you,” said John Balmes, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental health who specializes in respiratory diseases. “It can exacerbate asthma. You’ll be short of breath, you’ll wheeze, you’ll cough. If it is really bad, you might have to go to the emergency room.”

The rate of emergency room visits for asthma in West Oakland is far higher than the state average—for every 10,000 visits in 2009, 183 in West Oakland were due to asthma, according to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (see interactive map above). The state average is 48. This suggests that more people in West Oakland have severe or poorly managed asthma, likely due to environmental factors like diesel pollution that can aggravate respiratory problems.

For West Oakland residents, living with high levels of air pollution is more than a health issue. For this largely African-American, low-income community, it is also an environmental justice issue. According to statistics from the Alameda County Public Health Department, rates of asthma among African-American children in Alameda County are 2.5 times higher than the overall rate, and West Oakland itself is nearly 70 percent African-American.

“For multiple reasons, people who live there may be more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution,” said Balmes, who also serves on the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Other factors that can lead to the development of asthma and other respiratory illnesses are generally found in low-income communities, such as a poor diet, exposure to tobacco smoke and less access to health care. These can all worsen the effects of air pollution already present in high levels in West Oakland, he said.

“Growing up, everybody we knew had asthma,” said Ernest, who went to Prescott Elementary School less than a mile from the port. “I can’t live out here anymore, for health reasons.” Ernest said part of his decision to leave West Oakland had to do with his own asthma. His 16-year-old son also has asthma, he said, that developed while they were living in Richmond which, like West Oakland, has some of the poorest air quality in the Bay Area.

A diesel truck leaving the port. Photo by Justine Quart.

Part of the problem in communities with heavy truck traffic is that diesel engines can last a very long time, and older trucks operating on the road still emit the black smoke that used to be the signature of all diesel-powered 18-wheelers. But soon, stricter emissions standards for trucks operating at the port will go into effect, to comply with federal and CARB standards and “reduce the health risk related to truck emissions,” said Robert Bernardo, spokesman for the Port of Oakland. “Improving air quality is always a concern, and that in turn helps the community.”

The CARB regulations are being introduced in two phases: the first group took effect in January 2010 and the second will go into effect in January 2014.

In the first phase, the air resources board sought to reduce emissions of diesel particulate matter and black soot—both harmful to respiratory health—by banning all trucks with engines built before 1994 from rail yards and ports statewide. Operators of port trucks with engines built between 1994 and 2003 had to install a diesel particle filter or replace the engines with newer, cleaner models by 2010. According to the West State Alliance, a trade association representing truckers at the Port of Oakland, this exhaust retrofit applied to 700 trucks with 2004 engine models, and 2,000 from the model year 2005/2006.

For phase two, by January 1, 2014, all trucks serving California ports and rail yards will have to meet even stricter emissions standards regulating nitrogen oxide. The new standard for all trucks will be the engine model from 2007. Phase two will rule 4,400 trucks noncompliant in 2014—even those that had previously been retrofitted.

Due to stricter emissions regulations, many truck drivers will have to upgrade their engines. Photo by Justine Quart.

“That is the ultimate deadline,” Bernardo said. “After that, if you have one of these older trucks, you will not be able to do business here.”

The cost of buying a new truck is a major concern for many drivers, but there are government funds available to help finance the investment. This year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Alameda County together committed over $3 million to help drivers replace old trucks and reduce diesel particulate emissions at the port.

But Ron Light, executive director of the West State Alliance, said these grants, worth about $10,000 each, are limited and complicated to obtain, “a system no one can make use of.”

It can cost between $15,000 and $25,000 dollars to retrofit a truck with a filter, and a 2007 engine model truck can cost as much as $65,000. “This is an expensive proposition, given the state of the economy,” said Light. “That’s a tough nut, even with a grant. A lot of truckers already went out of business in 2010.”

Truckers have to apply at least a year before they need the grant money. This past January was the deadline to apply for funding to replace trucks with engines from 2004, and Light said that out of the 700 eligible truck drivers at the port, only about a dozen applied for grants.

“You’re asking these people to get ready today for something that is not going to happen for another ten or twelve months,” Light said. “This population tends not to think in those terms. There is also a certain amount of resistance in the trucking community to using a government subsidy for the replacement of personal equipment.”

Rather than asking for more money, Light’s organization bargained with CARB for more time to meet the regulations, attempting to push enforcement back from January 2014 to 2020—a request that he says has fallen on deaf ears this time. In 2009, at the behest of former Oakland mayor Ron Dellums, CARB agreed not to enforce phase one regulations for 6 months. But last December CARB voted not to grant an extension for phase two requirements.

“This time they thumbed their nose and said, ‘Well, you’re out of luck,’” Light said. “The regulations are too strict. The plan is basically to watch all of the smaller trucking companies and independent owner-operators go out of business.”

Diesel trucks drive in and out of the Port of Oakland every day. Photo by Justine Quart.

Light said he sees a “vast transformation” looming at the port, which began with the first phase of CARB rules in January 2010. The local independent truckers and small companies may be squeezed out as large fleets of trucks from companies in the Central Valley or out of state—big companies with enough capital to buy new trucks—pick up business at the Port of Oakland, he said.

About 4,000 trucks used to do business at the port have to be replaced with 2007 engine models by 2014, about 75 percent of the fleet at the Port of Oakland. This could translate into a significant loss of local business and jobs if truck drivers do not have the time or money to upgrade their vehicles, Light said.

“When people are losing their livelihood, it really does create an imbalance in the whole equation, in terms of what is important for quality of life,” he said. “They have hugely overstated the necessity of truck replacement for the environment and air quality.”

But advocates for strict enforcement contend that reducing emissions from the diesel trucks that enter and leave the port several times a day has and will have an impact on air quality in the area. Last October UC Berkeley researchers found that the rules have already reduced emissions of black carbon from diesel trucks operating at the Port of Oakland by up to 50 percent in the past year. The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, also reported that nitrogen oxide emissions, which contribute to climate change, declined by 40 percent.

Ernest's shop at 7th and Peralta. Photo by Justine Quart.

But Ernest, who spends most days at his bike shop in West Oakland, said he has not noticed a difference in the air. He has no plans to move his family back to the neighborhood, but he also said he will not move his shop. “You kinda get used to it. There is no other choice,” he said. “You can’t move the port, and I have to come to work. This is where my business is.”

A young man wanders into the shop, and asks Ernest if he has any bikes for around $75. Ernest tells his co-worker to go look in the back for something this new customer can afford. “I love West Oakland, but I don’t see how it can get better,” said Ernest as the man peruses the rows of shiny bicycles. “The trucks will still have to come. This is the city, this is the port, and I don’t know how they can change that.”

One Comment

  1. stuttah

    So the truckers are too stupid to figure out how to get $10,000 for free? Also, why can’t they just use bio-diesel when their in the port…. they wouldn’t have to upgrade anything on their truck and the emissions are a million times better.

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