Pollution cuts at the port promise a breath of fresher air for West Oakland

A terminal at the Port of Oakland

Commerce at the Port of Oakland has helped make West Oakland's air the most toxic in the Bay Area, but with the backing of aggressive state rules, the port has begun to clean up its act.

The Port of Oakland said that diesel pollution from its maritime operations has plunged 70 percent from 2005 levels, even as the port is handling 3 percent more cargo.

The port is in the midst of a larger push to reduce its diesel pollution in West Oakland 85 percent by 2020. Tim Leong, an environmental scientist at the port, said the agency is on track to meet that goal.

“The community can breathe easier,” Leong said. “The port is doing its part.”

Aggressive state regulations have driven the reductions, requiring cleaner engines and cleaner fuel in port machinery. But the improvements have also been shepherded along by years of talks between the port and West Oakland residents who are concerned over health risks. While commerce at the Port of Oakland has benefitted the regional economy – the port is a major export route for Northern California wine, agriculture and other products – residents nearby have historically suffered the toxic byproducts of that trade.

“The people of West Oakland have always gotten the pollution,” said Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. But he noted that things are changing. “People are beginning to notice less soot on their windowsills.”

The largest improvements have come from container ships. Those emissions plummeted by 70 percent, or 151 tons, between 2005 and 2012 in response to a state rule requiring ships to switch to cleaner-burning fuel as they approach land. The port has also begun to install “shore power” systems in some of its terminals, allowing ships to plug into the electrical grid while docked instead of idling their engines.

Other cuts have come from improvements in cargo-handling equipment, trains and harbor craft operating at the port, but some of the most significant reductions have been made in truck emissions, which have fallen 88 percent since 2005. Although they emit only a small fraction of the diesel fumes belched from ships, truck can be more dangerous because they operate closer to homes and businesses.

But these gains haven’t come without a fight. Since August, a series of work stoppages organized by owner-operator truckers have wracked the port. Subject to tightening pollution standards under a state rule originally implemented in 2009, the truckers have protested they are being forced out of a job.

To date, state and local agencies have provided some $38 million in assistance to help the drivers purchase exhaust filters and newer, cleaner rigs. But some say the industry has been forced to foot an unfair share of the bill.

“It has taken immense effort, immense financing,” said Andy Garcia, who owns GSC Logistics, a trucking company that operates at the port.

The Port of Oakland has reported declines in other pollutants as well – most notably, sulfur emissions, and some greenhouse gases – but the diesel cuts have drawn the most attention. In 2008, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) tied diesel pollution to elevated rates of cancer and respiratory ailments in West Oakland, where children under five years old are hospitalized for asthma at rates 2.7 times higher than the county average.

“This is a success story,” said Anna Lee, local policy director for the Alameda County Public Health Department, in response to the progress at the port. But she noted there is still plenty of work to be done in West Oakland. The neighborhood is ringed by freeways and home to a Union Pacific rail yard, and only about 16 percent of its diesel pollution originates in the port.

The emissions reductions at the Port of Oakland have come in response to California’s 2000 Diesel Risk Reduction Plan. The rules are among the nation’s strictest. CARB officials said individual ports elsewhere in the country – in New York City, New Jersey, and in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington – have begun to impose emissions rules for drayage trucks, but no other states have imposed similar fuel rules for container ships.

“The (California) fuel rule is unique,” said Paul Milkey, an air pollution specialist at the Air Resources Board. “There’s nothing comparable in other states.”


  1. Dan

    I am still wondering what benefit the Port is to the City of Oakland? It creates pollution, potholes, congestion and worst of all it occupies most of Oakland’s waterfront that could (should) be used for recreation and commerce. The jobs and economic benefit really do not belong to Oakland. San Francisco had the right idea getting rid of the commercial port.

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