West Oakland slated to benefit from plan to reduce air pollution

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West Oakland community members pinpoint local sources of pollution during a Community Action Plan Meeting September 5.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is gearing up to finalize a first-of-its-kind statewide plan to tackle air pollution, and West Oakland is slated to be one of 10 California communities to benefit the soonest. On September 27, the board will consider approving the first stages of the air protection program and determine whether West Oakland will be part of the inaugural group to receive additional funding for addressing local pollution.

CARB’s program emerges from Assembly Bill 617, which passed in the California legislature in 2017 and was signed by Governor Jerry Brown that July. The legislation requires new community-focused actions to reduce air pollution and improve public health in areas disproportionately affected by pollutants. This means local air districts, like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), are required to identify disadvantaged communities for closer monitoring and put into action new plans to decrease pollution.

Currently, the district is considering West Oakland as a site to reduce diesel particulate matter and toxic air contaminate emissions, and Richmond for additional air monitoring efforts. The Bay Area communities are also two of the initial 10 in California that are being recommended by CARB for the first year of its Community Air Protection Program. These communities were identified as places where health effects from pollution exposure are more severe and residents experience greater levels of poverty, according to CARB’s Community Recommendations Report. To make this determination, rates of cardiovascular disease, unemployment, lower educational attainment, higher housing cost burden and lower life expectancy were considered. Actions taken in these areas will serve as models for future efforts in other places.

“Under the guidelines set by AB 617, we’re going to be doing a number of things,” said Yvette DiCarlo, advanced projects advisor for BAAQMD, at a West Oakland air quality meeting on September 5. “We’re going to identify sources of pollution, target what we need to do to get blue, cleaner air and define what success is going to look like at the individual community level before we take action and start doing things that will help.”

West Oakland was identified as a priority community because it’s one of the most polluted in the Bay Area, according to an August 2018 BAAQMD assessment. Diesel trucks and buses, Port of Oakland operations, and traffic from adjacent interstates and highways are major pollution emitters in the region, the assessment noted. Large distribution centers, cement plant and power plants, metal facilities, and industrial and manufacturing operations also contribute to poor air quality in West Oakland, according to the BAAQMD.

A 2008 CARB health risk assessment found that West Oakland residents are exposed to air concentrations of diesel pollution that are almost three times higher than average background levels in the Bay Area, and that 71 percent of this air pollution risk was attributable to truck traffic. Exposure to higher concentrations of air pollutants like black carbon, nitrous oxide and nitrous dioxide—byproducts of heavy traffic and burning fuel—are associated with greater risk of heart disease, stroke and asthma. Exposure to diesel particulate matter has also been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.

“The most vulnerable in West Oakland are those with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular disease, especially the elderly,” the 2008 assessment said. “In addition, increased hospital admissions and illnesses from respiratory disease can be associated with particulate matter exposure in adults and children.”

Thanks to these numerous sources of diesel particulate matter and toxic air contaminants—and because West Oakland also experiences some of the highest asthma and cardiovascular disease rates in the region, along with high unemployment and rates of poverty—the area has already been a focus of the Air District’s Community Air Risk Evaluation (CARE) program. BAAQMD initiated the program in 2004 to identify places in the Bay Area where people are most affected by pollution and to offer resources for scientific studies and action plans in those areas.

CARB’s program will be tailored to the local level by BAAQMD once approved. “We’re creating a West Oakland Plan that is totally unique to West Oakland,” DiCarlo said speaking at the meeting. “No other community in the state is going to have this same plan, so we want to do everything we can to make sure it works best here.”

To do this, the air district has partnered with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), a group that advocates reducing people’s exposure to toxic air contaminants. On September 5, more than three dozen community members gathered at the Alameda County Public Health Department for a steering committee meeting to discuss the air district’s plans. Tables of sandwiches, chips and other food lined the conference room, attracting chatty meeting-goers before deeper conversation began.

Members of the steering committee—who’ve been selected to represent different groups and areas within West Oakland—took their places in a circle of tables and chairs before a large projector. Others, including public health and air quality experts, gathered together in rows of chairs behind the committee. To start the meeting, PowerPoint presentations covering air quality goals in West Oakland were shared and question-and-answer exchanges about air pollution strategies.

Margaret Gordon, co-director for WOEIP, said air quality has been an ongoing issue in West Oakland, and that she hopes the new plan won’t repeat previous efforts, and will focus instead on “necessary changes” needed now. “We want to see things happen, and we have to work together, with one another and with other groups and the air district,” Gordon said. “When we hear ‘community’ in all of this, we mean community. We are having a real, true, authentic voice in this process.”

Residents were asked to suggest potential sites for placing new air monitors by placing pins on enlarged maps of West Oakland, focusing on places they live and work, as well as locations they know are hotspots for air pollution. Pins landed across the map in places where West Oaklanders said they frequently see heavy traffic, backyard burnings, industrial operations and areas where trucks idle, park or deviate from their routes through neighborhoods.

“It’s always hard for me to breathe around there,” West Oakland resident Rita Martinez said as she placed a pin near the Dynegy Power Plant. She said the same as she placed another pin next to the United States Postal Service off 7th and Peralta streets.

“There are so many big trucks and semis going down neighborhood streets and idling around where they shouldn’t be,” said steering committee member Mercedes Rodriguez as she placed her own pins along the map.

Brian Beveridge, co-director for WOEIP, said gathering more community input at meetings like this one will be crucial for putting together an effective plan. “This plan is the air district’s task, but in concert with us,” Beveridge said. “Ultimately, this has to meet a lot of rules and technical requirements, but we’re working together on this. That’s how this will play out effectively.”

Beveridge added that future steering meetings will take place at different locations around West Oakland to encourage more people to contribute to the plan and help start “a larger dialogue” about air pollution. “We want as many people as possible in West Oakland to know what this is and to understand it to chime in and give us feedback,” Beveridge said. “We don’t want a small group of people deciding the future of what’s going to happen in our community. Everyone should have something to say on this, because it effects the health of every one of us.”

The air district has emphasized that communities adjacent to West Oakland will also benefit,  because changes made in one area affect air quality nearby. East Oakland is slated to join the CARB program within the next two to five years once more data on the area is available, according to BAAQMD.

But Esther Goolsby, community organizer for East Oakland’s Communities for a Better Environment, said she’s frustrated that other parts of Oakland might not be equally benefiting immediately. “We’re fighting for our lives here in East Oakland, too,” Goolsby said over the phone when asked to comment about the plan. “We need a plan that actually is going to stop these admissions and start assessing our future generations and development.”

Goolsby said she doesn’t want to see communities fighting over funding or resources or making it an “us versus them” scenario. Instead, she said she wants the air district to take more direct action in East Oakland—rather than continuing to only collect data—and listen to what community members there have to say about air pollution issues they’re having, too. “All of Oakland needs help with air quality. That’s a given,” she said.

Still, putting AB 617 into full effect is a multi-year process, and it could take several years to see results. State Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who proposed AB 617, said she expects some positive results by 2023. “When it’s determined an operator is polluting a community at toxic levels, immediate action is necessary to protect the public,” Garcia stated in a 2017 press release. By addressing pollution sources faster and more directly, she added, an overall improvement in air quality throughout the state should result.

The legislation also mandates that large industrial facilities in California’s most polluted communities upgrade their old, dirty equipment with cleaner, more modern technology by December 2023 at the latest.

If CARB approves West Oakland as a first-year community for the Air Protection Program, the BAAQMD’s board of directors must adopt the plan by October, 2019.

CARB is scheduled to meet September 27-28 in Sacramento, where the final Community Air Protection Program Blueprint—a roadmap for how this new plan will be carried out—will be presented. Then the board will vote. The first-year communities will also be selected for the deployment of air monitoring systems and community emissions reduction programs. Public comments about the program can be submitted to CARB by September 24 and will be considered by the board before the meeting.

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