What’s next for workers, city after century-old foundry announces move to Texas?
on March 19, 2022
AB&I Foundry, one of the largest industrial sources of air pollution in Oakland, announced plans last week to cease operations at its century-old plant and move to an existing facility in Tyler, Texas.
The closure, beginning in June, will cut 200 jobs and comes just weeks after two lawsuits were filed in Alameda County Superior Court accusing the company of spewing excessive levels of a carcinogen into East Oakland’s air.
“I am really scared for our community and what impact this is going to have on our already significantly hampered socio-economic and environmental status,” said Shekinah Samaya-Thomas, who lives less than a mile from the foundry.
The mayor’s office offered no comment on the foundry’s closing and subsequent job losses.
Sofia Navarro, executive director of the city’s Workforce Development Board, said the city would help displaced workers with training opportunities and career counseling. She referred specifically to the Metrix learning platform, which offers more than 5,000 courses toward industry certificates.
In a news release, AB&I President Michael Lowe said, “We remain committed to working with our team members and community partners to help our 200 union workers either move with us or to secure new equally well-paying jobs locally.” The release also states that eligible workers will be offered severance packages and assistance in the transition.
United Steelworkers Union Local 164b, representing workers in several different areas including cast-iron, did not return a call to determine how many Oakland workers might follow jobs to Texas.
The foundry has been a presence in East Oakland since 1906, when it started making light poles and iron statues. On its website, the company stresses its connection and responsibility to the community and pledges “to invest in continuous safety and environmental improvements to our facility.”
The move suggests otherwise, Samaya-Thomas noted.
”I’m just really sad that it’s come to this,” she said, “that the company has taken the coward’s way out instead of honoring the commitment to the community that they proclaim.”
The cast-iron-pipe facility, operating under the parent company McWane Inc., is less than half a mile from a public library and two elementary schools. According to a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta, the community near the foundry is affected more by pollution than 91% of the state and suffers from disproportionate rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease. AB&I cited California’s rigorous environmental regulations in a decision last year to move some of its operations to Texas, where the standards aren’t as stringent.
AB&I has a long history of violating environmental laws. After hearing community concerns about excessive pollution and a noxious smelling odor from the foundry, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District released a draft Health Risk Assessment of the facility in April. It found that it has been emitting high levels of hexavalent chromium, a chemical known to cause cancer, reproductive harm and birth defects. The report said the cancer risk for workers at the facility was four times higher than the air district’s standards and two times higher for community members.
Though not yet finalized, the assessment required the foundry to submit permit applications for the pipe-casting machines responsible for hexavalent chromium emissions. According to Carol Allen, engineering manager with the air district, the permits may have required the foundry to install pollution controls, in addition to implementing a risk reduction plan to lower emissions.
The assessment led Bay Area-based environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment to file a lawsuit accusing the foundry of violating California’s Proposition 65, which requires businesses to warn people about significant exposures to harmful chemicals. The state’s lawsuit followed, accusing the foundry of failing to protect the East Oakland community from highly toxic chemicals and not providing proper warning about the risks of exposure. The foundry denied all claims.
Citing “ever increasing regulatory standards,” AB&I announced last March that it would move part of its operation to Tyler Pipe, a partner facility operating under McWane Inc. The foundry now plans to move all operations to Texas. According to a March 11 news release, it will shut down in stages, ending fitting operations around June 9 and implementing a full closure within a year.
“After much deliberation, we came to the difficult decision that relocation of our operations from Oakland was the only course of action to ensure we can continue to serve our customers with high quality pipe and pipe fittings,” Lowe said in the release.
Jasmine Gonzalez, who lives 1.5 miles from the foundry, said that it was “morally incomprehensible and unacceptable” for AB&I to move to a state with lesser environmental regulations instead of investing in cleaner operations in Oakland.
Like East Oakland, Tyler has a significant Black population, especially when compared to Texas as a whole. In addition, the median household income in Tyler is significantly lower than the state average, at $52,932 compared to $61,874, according to census data.
Tyler is home to the nearly 70-year old McWane Inc. facility Tyler Pipe, which says on its website that safeguarding workers and protecting the environment is “job one.” However, Tyler Pipe has a long history of environmental and worker safety violations. The company pleaded guilty to two felonies for violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules in the death of a worker in 2000 and for treating hazardous waste without a permit. It was court-ordered in 2005 to pay a $4.5 million fine and undergo extensive upgrades to the facility.
This story was updated to correct the local union number.
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