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Plan to reduce West Oakland air pollution heads to state for approval

on October 21, 2019

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) approved West Oakland’s first comprehensive air pollution plan to emerge from a community-led process, at a packed meeting held in Oakland earlier this month.

West Oakland Environmental Impact Indicator Survey co-founder Margaret Gordon speaks about the air pollution plan (Photo courtesy of Sharon Beals/BAAQMD)

“I have asthma. I have four grandchildren and a son who have asthma,” said longtime West Oakland resident and West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) co-founder Margaret Gordon. “I had the guts and the nerve to stay in this process and I am determined to make a change.”

The district’s board of directors voted unanimously to adopt the plan, which is now heading to the California Air Resources Board for approval. With some of the highest air pollution rates and associated health risks in the state, West Oakland is one of 10 Californian communities selected as part of state Assembly Bill 617 to develop community-level air pollution reduction plans. AB 617 also directs those communities to implement comprehensive multi-year plans to reduce pollution. Approval of the plan is West Oakland’s first step.

“This is a model plan, unique in the country,” said Richard Grow, a retired Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffer and member of the steering committee that produced the report. “It does what the United States EPA couldn’t do.”

The steering committee, a joint effort between BAAQMD and WOEIP, is open to anyone who lives, works or owns a business in West Oakland. The committee’s 1,000-page plan, Owning Our Air: The West Oakland Community Action Plan, lists more than 80 strategies to reduce air pollution, including limiting hours that trucks can operate in West Oakland, supporting car-sharing programs for low-income residents, and offering financial incentives to replace diesel trucks with zero emission trucks.

According to Henry Hilken, BAAQMD’s director of planning and climate protection, previous Bay Area air quality plans have been regional. “What we wanted to do with this plan was to focus on local emission sources,” he said. “AB 617 is about local sources and local benefits.”

Over the past two decades, California’s cancer risk from particulate matter in diesel exhaust declined nearly 70 percent, according to a 2015 study published by the American Chemical Society. But West Oakland still has the Bay Area’s highest diesel pollution rates.

Local sources of air pollution in West Oakland come from trucks, trains, ships, cars and industrial factories (Photo by Anne Daugherty)

The steering committee focused on air pollutants that cause the most health problems for West Oakland’s 26,000 residents, including diesel particles, which come from trucks, trains, ships and other sources—many of them near residential areas.

West Oakland residents also experience significantly higher cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease rates those living in other parts of Alameda County. In 2016-2017, West Oakland residents had 88 percent more hospitalizations due to asthma and 76 percent more asthma-related emergency room visits than the rest of Alameda County, according to Alameda County Public Health Department data.

“We are not all impacted by pollution equally or equitably,” said WOEIP co-founder Brian Beveridge.

Over the past 17 years, WOEIP partnered with several research and nonprofit groups to gather localized air quality data. Google, for one, affixed their Street View cars with fast-response pollution measurement devices in 2015 and sampled the streets of Oakland, creating the largest urban air quality data set of its type.

West Oakland’s steering committee established neighborhoods impact zones based on pollution levels (Photo by Anne Daugherty)

“What made us unique for the Bay Area is that we were able to get air quality data down to the ground,” said Gordon. “Nobody else had data that was close to where people are.”

At the meeting earlier this month, some business owners raised concerns about how the plan will affect economic development.

It shouldn’t come down to “trucks versus humans,” said steering committee member and West Oakland AB Trucking owner Bill Aboudi. He said community members must remember that trucks are a critical and necessary tool.

Hilken said that clean air and better health also provide economic benefits.

To many community members, that rang true.

West Oakland resident and steering committee member Karin Mac Donald offers feedback on developing the plan (Photo by Anne Daugherty)

“We are not experts on air quality,” said steering committee member and Prescott/Oakland Point Neighborhood Association representative Karin Mac Donald. “We’re just experts on breathing the bad air and on our community.”

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