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A green and grassy marsh with a channel of water running through it is in the foreground, with the air traffic control tower from Oakland International Airport and the white airport terminal in the background.

Baykeeper sues Oakland recycler whose plant caught fire last summer

on May 13, 2024

From the end of a boardwalk that juts into Oakland’s Arrowhead Marsh, it can be hard to appreciate the fragility of this ecosystem. At low tide, native cordgrass and pickleweed brim with life, rustling, snapping and popping as they dry under the morning sun. California clapper rails dig their long beaks into the mudflats in search of small crustaceans. Above, bright white kestrels dart, periodically diving into the water and emerging with small, shining baitfish. Birdsong crescendos, sage fills the air and wildflowers accent backdrops of green and brown.

A few blocks away, just upstream on Elmhurst Creek, a wholly different scene unfolds. Behind tall chain-link fences and concrete walls, dozens of cars in various states of disrepair line a large recycling lot. Pick-n-Pull, a subsidiary of the global Radius Recycling company, collects junk cars and invites customers to dismantle them for parts. The process results in an accumulation of heavy metals, oil, grease and other potentially harmful materials on the property. According to advocacy group San Francisco Baykeeper, those materials are finding their way into Elmhurst Creek and Arrowhead Marsh.

In a federal lawsuit filed in February, Baykeeper alleged that Radius Recycling is violating the Clean Water Act by not properly mitigating the polluted stormwater runoff that comes from its properties in Oakland, Richmond, Newark and Fairfield. According to Baykeeper, tests show consistently high levels of lead, iron, aluminum, copper and other minerals at the Oakland Pick-n-Pull facility, along with high chemical oxygen demand — a measurement applied to the amount of oxidizable pollutants found in water. After a short trip in the Oakland sewer system and Elmhurst Creek, the runoff winds up at Arrowhead Marsh. 

In an emailed statement, Eric Potashner, a spokesperson for Radius, disputed the allegations but noted that the company is working with Baykeeper to address issues with stormwater runoff at some of its facilities. He described the court filing as a routine procedural step before the sides come to an agreement.

This is not the first controversy around a Radius site in Oakland. The company, formerly known as Schnitzer Steel, has attracted significant attention from regulatory agencies for a litany of violations. 

In 2021, investigators from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that the company’s West Oakland recycling facility was allowing harmful levels of lead, zinc and copper particles to reach the surrounding air and water. In response, the regulatory agency filed a formal enforcement action and reached a $4.1 million settlement with the company. 

Then in 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a complaint against the company for not properly disposing of refrigerants that could be harmful to the ozone layer. The result was a $1.5 million settlement and a promise to make $1.7 million in upgrades to the facility and to the company’s environmental practices.

Last August, a fire broke out in a scrap metal pile at Schnitzer’s main facility in West Oakland, sending plumes of smoke into the air and making national headlines. According to Oakland officials, the fire was first reported at 5:30 p.m. and was not put out until 9 p.m.

The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, a group of West Oakland residents who lobby for environmental justice in their neighborhood, said that the smoke covered Oakland, reaching as far as Larkspur in the north and Milpitas in the south.

“Fires in a pile of toxic material should be a never event for a corporation, like a death due to accidents in a hospital,” said Brian Beveridge, co-executive director of the group, said at a community meeting a day after the fire.

“We’ve got babies who are breathing this in,” added Planet MC, an environmental rapper and middle school teacher. 

Regulatory agencies responded quickly. Within a few days, DTSC issued notices of violations related to the company’s failure to mitigate fire risks and for its delayed response to the emergency. The EPA and CalEPA set up a rapid response task force to deal directly with the fallout of the fire. More violations came out of related investigations, which are ongoing.

Uphill battle

Radius Recycling bills itself as a globally responsible corporation. In 2023, it was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential companies. It also was awarded the title “world’s most sustainable company” at the World Economic Forum by Corporate Knights; in 2024, that ranking had dropped to 36. 

The EPA is paying attention to the most recent lawsuit, but it is not directly involved. According to Jamie Marincola, EPA deputy director of enforcement and compliance assurance, regulating stormwater runoff is a complex process. Surface water monitoring is hyper local, so it can be hard to pin down exactly which environmental regulations are being violated and under which jurisdiction. 

As a result, Baykeeper’s overall strategy for addressing polluted stormwater runoff in the Bay Area often looks more like collaboration than enforcement. Its Bay-Safe Industry Campaign tries to compel companies to address stormwater pollution. Investigators start by taking samples of runoff, and the process proceeds, if necessary, to Baykeeper filing a Clean Water Act lawsuit. 

The legal step taken against Radius in February ensures that any agreement to mitigate the problem is binding. Baykeeper would then collaborate with representatives from the facility on solutions. So far, Baykeeper has reached agreements with 51 companies over the course of 10 years. 

“When we sue, most polluters work with Baykeeper to quickly resolve their pollution problems and that keeps the costs and penalties low. In fact, some polluters have actually thanked us for suing them and for bringing the problem to their attention and helping them solve it,” Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Baykeeper’s executive director, said in her 2024 State of the Bay address.

But it’s an uphill battle. According to Baykeeper, there are over 1,000 industrial polluters in the Bay Area alone. In the heavily industrialized East Bay, local waters have unhealthy levels of heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons. 

Where Elmhurst Creek spills into the San Leandro Bay at Arrowhead Marsh, the city encroaches from virtually every direction, stressing the ecosystem. Planes fly overhead on their way to and from the nearby airport. Industrial buildings line parts of the shoreline, their smokestacks belching clouds of white into the sky. In the background, the concrete concourses of the Coliseum obscure the horizon. Heavy metals from upstream industrial facilities make fish consumption inadvisable.

In its lawsuit, Baykeeper acknowledged the cost. According to its lawyers, this is a problem that, if left unaddressed, will continue to harm animals, plants and humans across the Bay Area.

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