East Oakland residents wary of changes intended to make it easier to report air pollution
on June 6, 2022
The morning of March 8 was beautiful, and Jennifer Pope wanted to let fresh air into her East Oakland home. So, as one often does on a sunny day, she opened all the windows. Suddenly, though, came the odor — what Pope describes as a burnt resin smell.
“It came wafting in the house and it just ruined my whole morning,” Pope said. “I can’t even enjoy living in my own home because this odor is so intrusive.”
Pope reported the odor, which she associated with the nearby cast iron pipe manufacturer AB&I Foundry, to the California Environmental Protection Agency and Bay Area Air Quality Management District around 10:45 a.m. She said that by the time the inspector arrived 30 minutes later, the odor had dissipated, which is common due to shifting winds.
Around 1 p.m., the odor came back, stronger this time. Pope called BAAQMD immediately and waited. She never received a call back, and she said an inspector never showed.
“I was really let down by that, because these folks are like our only link to being heard,” Pope said.
Pope often won’t file a report because she isn’t able to be present when the inspector arrives, which used to be a requirement. Before last year, the complainant was required to have a face-to-face meeting with an inspector, which hampered people’s ability to file complaints. After significant public comments and concern regarding the process, BAAQMD held a series of workshops, amended the Air Quality Complaint and Investigation Policy in 2020 and implemented policy changes in early 2021.
The process no longer requires the complainant to be present during the investigation — but the inspector must be able to independently trace the emissions back to a source, site or facility to confirm the complaint. The policy sets a 30-minute window for an inspector to arrive, and complainants are allowed only one call per day against the same source.
The updated policy is meant to enhance the Air District’s ability to confirm complaints. However, many Bay Area residents say they were unaware that the process was updated. Others say they had given up on the process before it was updated, because it was so onerous.
Before the update, between April 2020 and April 2021, 1,288 complaints were filed against facilities throughout Alameda County and 94, or 7%, were confirmed, according to data BAAQMD provided through a public records request. After the update, between April 2021 and April 2022, the number of complaints went down to 897, but many more were confirmed — 157, nearly 18%.
Shekinah Samaya-Thomas, who lives just over a mile from AB&I Foundry, said she would often smell the odor, but stopped filing complaints because she couldn’t guarantee being present when the inspector arrived. Had she known the process was updated, she wouldn’t have stopped filing, she said.
Under the old process, Samaya-Thomas said she would wait anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours for an inspector to show up. “You have to be able to be present, stop everything, talk to them, and the odor still has to be present, which, with shifting winds, it rarely is,” she said.
BAAQMD said its inspectors try to respond within 30 minutes, but response times vary because of traffic, the inspectors’ availability and other factors.
Jasmine Gonzalez, who made close to two dozen complaints in 2021, also was not aware of the change. To verify it, she asked during a May 5 complaint call if she needed to be present for her complaint to be confirmed. The operator was not sure, she said. The inspector who arrived to investigate the complaint also was unsure about how the new policy worked, according to Gonzalez, and offered to “read up on it” and follow up.
Gonzalez’s complaint wasn’t confirmed because the odor had dissipated by the time the inspector arrived. She said she noticed it again — a distinct burnt rubber smell — but because the policy still only allows one complaint per day, there was nothing she could do about it.
Gonzalez said that of the 20 or so complaints she made in 2021, only three were confirmed.
If a complaint is confirmed, the inspector will determine whether or not it constitutes a violation. According to BAAQMD’s policy, a notice of violation is issued when the inspector discovers non-compliance or determines the complaint constitutes a public nuisance, meaning it “endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public.”
BAAQMD issued 10 public nuisance violations in 2021, eight of which are still pending, including one against AB&I.
Violators can be fined and must take corrective action and identify steps for mitigation. In 2021, the Air District issued 658 notices of violation and collected $4.2 million in fines.
According to a BAAQMD spokesperson, “Air District inspectors have routinely inspected AB&I to ensure they remain in compliance and will continue to issue NOVs if odors are emitted and not corrected.”
The odor continues to be an issue for East Oakland residents, which makes them question the effectiveness of public nuisance violations.
Gonzalez said that in the past, inspectors routinely told her that the odor associated with the foundry was non-toxic. Asked by Oakland North if the odor was toxic, the Air District said “not necessarily,” adding that inspectors are not able to identify specific compounds present in the odor because of instrument limitations.
Referring to the complaints process, Gonzalez said, ”I think it could be a lot better, especially given that the recent health risk assessment showed that AB&I has been emitting really dangerous chemicals into the community.”
In April, BAAQMD released a draft Health Risk Assessment of the foundry, which reported that cancer risk for workers at the facility was four times higher than the Air District’s standards, and for the community, it was twice as high, due to emissions of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium and other chemicals.
“I just feel like they haven’t been protecting us,” Gonzalez said.
In December, an Oakland-based environmental group sued AB&I, and in February, California also sued the company for reportedly emitting excessive levels of hexavalent chromium into East Oakland’s air. In March, the foundry announced that it is ceasing operations in Oakland, laying off about 200 workers and moving to an existing facility in Tyler, Texas.
Suma Peesapati, the Air District’s environmental justice and community engagement officer, highlighted ways the agency is engaging communities impacted by air pollution. It recently established the Community Advisory Council, a cross-regional body made up of 17 Bay Area residents, including youth and environmental activists, who live in affected communities. The council will advise and consult with the board of directors and the executive officer, using their lived experiences to influence policies. Additionally, East Oakland was recently designated a priority community under a 2017 law to promote community participation in addressing the disproportionate impacts of air pollution.
Peesapati, an attorney who once represented groups fighting the Air District for changes, acknowledged that more needs to be done to adequately address air pollution in the Bay Area.
”The enforcement response across all agencies has been slow, and so the concerns that the community has are legitimate,” she said. “We should have done better and we need to do better.”
‘It should not be on us’
In other parts of the Bay Area, residents have faced similar obstacles.
Janice Schroeder, a West Berkeley resident, filed complaints with the Air District for almost 40 years related to an odor associated with Pacific Steel Casting, a West Berkeley steel plant that closed in 2018. She said the odor caused her to experience headaches, nausea and tightness in her chest, and that she remains concerned about the potential toxicity of odorous emissions from industrial facilities.
“Breathing in these odors/particulates impacts my health, the health of other people, especially pregnant people, infants, children and other living beings,” Schroeder said. “What is the cumulative impact of exposure to multiple sources of toxics?”
She was a member of the grassroots group Neighbors for Clean Air from 1981 to 2005, which turned into the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs, a network of neighbors, businesses and organizations working to preserve safe jobs while preventing air pollution. She said the Air District doesn’t do enough outreach to educate Bay Area residents about what to do if they experience air pollution.
The Air District informed the public about its April 2021 policy update by sending an “email blast” in August to those who signed up for the What’s New at the Air District newsletter. The new policy is listed on the website along with links to public meetings covering community concerns.
”We live in a community with people who might not have access to the internet or might not know how to find information in that way,” Gonzales pointed out. “Even just a simple mailer to us about how to get involved and how to engage would be really meaningful.”
Many Bay Area residents said they feel hopeless when filing complaints alone, so community members from East Oakland and Richmond have mobilized to fight pollution at the grassroots level. Marisol Cantú coordinates a text thread with Richmond residents. When there is a flaring event from the Richmond Chevron Refinery, she notifies the group and encourages everyone to file a complaint. Residents have found that the more people who call, the higher the likelihood of an inspector showing up and confirming the complaint.
Gonzalez started a similar text thread in East Oakland. She said it’s her way of building a community movement to hold BAAQMD accountable.
“We’re small, but we’re a mighty group,” she said.
Cantú said the community should not have to take such measures.
“We shouldn’t have these incidents, and we shouldn’t have to feel the responsibility to report them,” she said. “As community members, it should not be on us to have to protect us.”
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