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Port of Oakland,o​fficial​s work to resolve air quality in West Oakland

on March 12, 2019

The Port of Oakland is the fifth busiest in the United States, and one of the biggest contributors to the poor air quality in West Oakland, which is among the worst in the Bay Area. According to Michael Murphy, an advanced project advisor for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), “The port represents at this time 30 percent of the contributing factors of the bad air quality in West Oakland.” But over the past 10 years, officials at the port have worked to reduce diesel emissions and their effect on the area’s air.

For example, TraPac, one of the port’s operators, just finished a two-year expansion project at the end of January. TraPac invested $67 million in the expansion, which now gives the terminal the capacity to take on more cargo. Over the years, it might increase its volume from 2 to 3 percent more every year, according to Mike Zampa, the communications director for the port.

By adding a berth, TraPac is now able to host three ships at the same time, instead of two. According to Murphy, this new berth might play a significant role in the reduction of diesel emissions. First, by reconfiguring their gates, TraPac can allow the operators of ships to handle their administrative paperwork while shutting down their engines, rather than waiting in line with their motors on, emitting diesel fumes. At the same time, the second gate will allow ships to come in through the port in two directions. These two implementations could resolve congestion issues the Port of Oakland faces, helping reducing the air pollution in the area, Murphy said.

(TraPac officials did not respond to interview requests.)

As part of another project, in November, Lineage, Logistics and Dreisbach Enterprises opened Cool Port Oakland, a $90 million refrigerated distribution center. “Containers and cargo that are refrigerated boxes and usually transport meat come through this facility,” said Zampa, who estimates the number of containers at around 50,000 or 60,000 every year. These containers represent one of the biggest pollution sources for the port.

“The refrigerated containers have generators on the outside, which are powered by diesel fuel,” Zampa said. “At the Port of Oakland, the container waits on the dock to get to a ship. While waiting, the generator has to keep running to keep the product fresh. This can take time and lead to a significant amount of diesel emissions.” Instead, the containers will now be cooled inside the distribution center and connected to the shore power, allowing the ships to stop running those generators.

Similarly, as part of their expansion, TraPac also increased the number of plug-in spaces for storing refrigerated containers from 388 to 860, allowing ships to connect to shore power so they can cool the boxes without running their engines and emitting more diesel fumes. The increased number of plug-in spaces will allow every ship that comes in to connect to shore power and completely turn their engines off.

On the docks, Zampa said the port has made agreements with marine terminal operators that they will plug their ships in the land-side power grid and turn their engines off. These agreements, he said, “are designed to benefit the community and minimize a potential harm for the community.”

But all the communities who are affected by traffic to the port do not necessarily benefit from these changes. Because West Oakland is the closest neighborhood to the port, the area gets a lot of attention from the Port of Oakland, but East Oakland is not as lucky, said Esther Goolsby and Angela Scott, two community organizers working at Communities for a Better Environment. Their concerns are more focused on the diesel fumes from trucks driving to the port and passing through East Oakland, rather than from ships berthed at the port.

“The 880 freeway is what the diesel trucks use to come from the port to East Oakland,” said Scott. “It is the only way diesel trucks are allowed to go. So we get all of that pollution from the freeway, because our communities are lying just on it. And most of these trucks come from the port.”

While the port is working on building a fleet of battery-powered trucks, and is receiving $9 million in grant funds from state air regulators to do it, Goolsby added, so far “not all of the trucks have been changed from diesel to electric power.”

“I think it is great that the air regulators give money to get cleaner equipment and infrastructure,” said Scott. “But they have to make sure that communities will also benefit from it. It the port wants to electrify the trucks, go ahead. But make sure that we see those trucks!”

This truck traffic represents one of the biggest pollution issues in the community, and children are the most exposed to these diesel emissions. “Seven of ten schools in the county situated in close proximity of a freeway are in the Oakland Unified School District, exposing children to unacceptably high levels of air pollution” according to a report from the Alameda County Health Department. In West Oakland, the report says, “residents breathe air with at least three times more diesel particles in it than the rest of the Bay Area. This higher risk is predominantly due to diesel trucks transporting goods on freeways around the area as well as into and out of the Port of Oakland and the Union Pacific Rail Yard.”

In terms of health, this exposure to pollutants from diesel fumes can significantly increase a person’s risk of disease.“There is a scale to measure air pollution as a contributor to cancer risk,” said Murphy, based on a person’s risk of contracting cancer if exposed to a pollutant over a lifetime. According to a 2014 air district report, the average Bay Area risk was about 300 cancers per million people. Over 70 percent of this risk was related to diesel emissions.

But according to that same report, in 2005 the West Oakland air contained diesel particulate matter concentrations that were almost three times the Bay Area’s average, and the lifetime cancer risk due to diesel exposure was an additional 1,200 cancers per million residents over a 70-year lifespan.

According to Murphy, the numbers have not changed much since then.

The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project organization reported in 2003 that diesel emissions per square and per year in West Oakland were up to 90 times higher than California’s average. East Oakland faces a similar situation. “Our community has the highest level of diesel emissions all over Alameda County,” said Scott. “We are at the top 5 percent of the state. Of the state!”

Goolsby has worked with Communities for a Better Environment for eight years, and during that time, she said, she has not noticed any significant improvements regarding truck traffic. “One diesel truck route was moved to 98th [Avenue] and we also got more signage, especially around schools. Besides that, I don’t think a lot of things changed,” she said. The trucks’ route map is decided by the county government and allows trucks to take some routes, and prohibits idling along others. Yet, Goolsby was surprised when she looked closer at the truck routes map. “Wow, 85th [Avenue] is supposed to be prohibited, but I see trucks there all the time!” she said.

She said the problem is that the city has not hired anyone to enforce the law to ensure that truckers stay in limited areas. “The city is good for policies and ordering, mainly because communities advocate for it. But they don’t do enforcement,” Goolsby said.

They also criticize the system of regulatory agencies grants that has given money to the port so they can build a cleaner infrastructure. “They regulate the air quality in the Bay Area, but they also give permits to the polluters. The polluters have to pay for fees, which are pennies. After that, the air regulators fine the polluters. The money comes back from polluters to air regulators, but the communities do not get anything,” argued Goolsby. In addition, she called the grant process for community organizations to get money from the air district complicated and discouraging. “When we apply for a grant, this is such a type of process—and so hard—for some pennies that it is not even worth it,” she said.

All of the port’s new projects relate in some way to the “2020 Plan,” which it has been engaged in for the past 10 years. The main goal of this plan is to reduce the port’s diesel emissions by 85 percent, an objective that Murphy does not consider unrealistic, since port officials have already cut the first 81 percent of those emissions between 2005 and 2018. “They have a reasonably good chance to achieve it, depending on whether the ships are prepared to connect to the shore power and completely shut the engine down,” he said.

“We’ve done the easy part,” Zampa said, referring to the reductions made so far. “The hard part now is that last 5 percent, but the way we expect to do it is by requiring more ships to plug in. Not all ships can plug in. They may not have equipment on board to do it. Or when they come to berth, the vessels may not be lined up where the electrical vault is. Our goal is too get as close as 100 percent plug-in as we can, and as we do that, we’ll get closer to our 85 percent goal. It will be a challenge, but if we respect the regulations and follow our plans, we can prevent a significant increase in pollution from increasing [shipping traffic] volume.”

For Zampa, the ultimate goal remains to become a zero-emission port over the next decades. “We are about to implement a new air quality plan that moves the path to zero diesel-emissions activities. A lot is going on to insure the community benefits and is not harmed. In fact, little less than a year ago, we adapted a new 5-years strategic plan for the port of Oakland called Growth with Care,” he said. This plan includes both a local hiring policy and a diesel emissions reduction component, as the port expects 8 percent more container cargo volume in Oakland by 2022.

In the end, Zampa said, there are two main concerns that the port has to handle over the next years: “As we expand, we want to make sure that, first we can handle the growth operationally—that means that cargos move quickly, there is no congestion, and no truck traffic or ships anchored out waiting. Then, that we can handle that from a community point, so the operations don’t harm life in West Oakland. That means no additional congestion on the streets or additional truck traffic, and no significant additional air pollution.”

While port officials have put a lot of effort into making their operation as clean as possible, a big part of their success still relies on the goodwill of the ship operators. Similarly, the BAAQMD cannot compel a ship operator to plug their ship to the shore power, for example, but just advise them to do so.

Murphy would like port officials to take more aggressive initiatives to reduce pollution. “We think the port and its tenants do a reasonable job regarding their emissions, but they are still limited and not very aggressive,” he said. “The public health needs more. The port usually waits until somebody compels them to do something. For now, 80 percent of the ships do not necessarily connect to the shore power. They also need to resolve the problem of congestion: Sometimes ships want to get to a terminal but there is no berthing space. They then have to wait with their engine on. If they do, then I think they can complete the 2020 air quality plan.”

Scott supports these initiatives, too, but she would like to see more community involvement in the decision-making. “If the port really wants to change the way they do things and change the way they overburden us with the pollution, I feel they should first include us in their decisions,” she said.

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