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Pollution a growing concern in Oakland’s District 3, still not a campaign focus for candidates

on October 12, 2020

Every morning, Melvin Howard finds a layer of dust covering his car. The dust, he says, is from the many factories in West Oakland. “There is a lot of pollution from the warehouses and the port,” Howard says.

“We have a lot of particles in the air around here, which affect my breathing,” said Howard, a resident of West Oakland for nine years.

Oakland’s District 3, which includes industrial West Oakland, is known for its toxic air quality. With 26,000 residents, it is home to the district’s most critical and divisive issues, including housing and homelessness – District 3 hosts the vast majority of Oakland’s unhoused population —  as well as pollution and garbage issues.

But while housing and homelessness is a common theme on the campaign websites of the candidates running to represent District 3 in the upcoming Oakland City Council, air pollution has gotten no space.

West Oakland is exposed to high levels of air pollution from surrounding highways, the adjacent Port of Oakland, and the numerous industrial facilities located in close proximity to residents.

“There are three freeways built around us and we have a port that is also expanding, tow-truck and ship traffic, cargo handling equipment and trucks that run 24/7,” says Margaret Gordon, a long time West Oakland resident and the co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), an advocacy group.

The rates of asthma hospitalization and emergency department visits are almost twice as high in West Oakland than those of other areas in Alameda County, according to a 2018 report by the county health department.

Cancer, heart disease, strokes and chronic lower respiratory disease are among the top five causes of death in West Oakland, according to a 2018 report of the Alameda County Health Department. Together, they account for over half of all deaths. The county health department says these diseases are associated with, although not solely attributed to, air pollution.

The air around West Oakland is so toxic that it was chosen as one of 10 areas in California to develop community-level air pollution reduction plans last year as part of the State’s Assembly Bill 617.

That plan recommended measures such as carpooling by residents, limiting hours that trucks can operate and replacing diesel trucks. The report, dubbed Owning our Air: The West Oakland Community Action Plan, was spearheaded by WOEIP and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), a public agency that regulates sources of air pollution in the Bay Area.

But neither Lynette McElhaney, who is running for a third term as a area’s city council representative, nor the five candidates running to unseat her, have raised air quality as a top concern.

“They (politicians) don’t really care about how much pollution goes on in West Oakland,” Howard said. “They try to keep it under. They should be involved in keeping the air clean by making sure the corporations and warehouses around West Oakland have filters to keep out whatever goes to the air.”

Of the six politicians seeking election, only four of them have active campaign websites. Oakland’s air pollution issue is not mentioned in any of them.

Oakland North reached out to the six candidates – McElhaney, Carrol Fife, Seneca Scott, Meron Samedar, Alexus Taylor and Faye Taylor — to ask why air pollution was not a priority in their campaigns.

“With so many issues, it’s difficult to find the time to speak of them all,” Scott, a former union leader, said.  “Pollution has been an issue in West Oakland for decades. Our soil is also poisoned.”

His campaign agenda includes affordable housing and reallocating funds from the Oakland Police Department (OPD) budget to other departments.

Fife, a housing activist, says she is running on “a platform of systemic change, not incremental reform.” For her too, the pollution problem has no room in her campaign website. Housing, policing, essential workers and revenue are her key campaign issues.

“Everyone in Oakland should be able to breathe, free of environmental and police terrorism,” she said in an email. “Much of that difference comes down to air quality. By addressing harmful air pollutants, we’ll also work to bring our carbon emissions down, protecting our shared global climate.”

McElhaney and Samedar did not respond to repeated requests for comment by the time of this article’s publication. But in 2018, McElhaney attended and spoke passionately in meetings that developed the Owning our Air plan.

Air quality is a priority issue for West Oakland that community members and leaders must continue pushing for, BAAQMD says.

“It is critical for political leaders to assure that air quality and community health in West Oakland continue to be a priority for the city,” said Tina Landis, a representative of BAAQMD.

This article has been updated to reflect information about McElhaney’s previous statements on Oakland’s air quality.

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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