Port's Air Pollution Is A Form Of Racial Discrimination, Says Environmental Law Group

An environmental law nonprofit asked federal authorities on Wednesday to stop funding harborside development and freight operations unless the city and port authority promise to cease allegedly discriminatory practices resulting in high air pollution levels in West Oakland, where the population is 79 percent non-white.

Earthjustice filed the request with civil rights officials at the federal departments of Transportation, Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Last summer, WOEIP persuaded the city to stop coal and petroleum coke products from being shipped through the port. That action is facing a challenge in federal court from Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal, which wants to handle the coal and petcoke shipments.

The new complaint alleges that activities in and around the port generate diesel emissions in West Oakland that are 90 times higher than the state average, resulting in frequent and severe respiratory and cardiovascular problems, strokes and a life expectancy nine years shorter than that in the rest of the city.

A truck enters the Port of Oakland. | Photo: Scott Morris/Hoodline

WOEIP and the EPA have been trying for seven years to persuade the city to implement plans to reduce diesel emissions anticipated at a bulk cargo warehouse under construction at the port, WOEIP co-director Margaret Gordon said. If the complaint fails to produce the desired result, WOEIP will pursue the matter in court, said Gordon, who has lived on Seventh Street for more than 20 years.

The mayor’s and city administrator’s offices did not respond to a request for comment.

Port of Oakland spokesman Mike Zampa said the port authority would decline to comment pending a thorough review of the complaint. But the port has been talking frequently with WOEIP to address its concerns and “we have made great progress in our efforts to diminish the impact of trade operations on the local community,” he said.

Diesel particulate matter emissions from trucks operated in the port have been reduced 98 percent since 2005 and vessel emissions at the port are down 76 percent in that time span, he said, adding, “We haven’t done this alone. We’ve worked closely with our partners in transportation, in trade and in the local community to reduce emissions and improve air quality.”

WOEIP and Earthjustice are asking the DOT and EPA to investigate jointly “all past and ongoing violations” by the city and the port under a 1964 Civil Rights Act provision barring discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance, Earthjustice associate attorney Yana Garcia said.

If the agencies find violations of the Act's Title VI, “we’re asking them to condition all future grants on assurances that (the city and the port) will engage in the less discriminatory alternatives we’ve outlined in our complaint,” Garcia said.

“Specifically,” the formal complaint states, “WOEIP requests that the city and port implement and adhere to appropriately tailored, updated mitigation measures that will address the harmful externalities of the port’s industrial and freight activities – including any and all new and expanded activities occurring at the (former Army base) – and that both the city and port commit to a meaningful, continuous process for receiving and incorporating input from the West Oakland community.”

The complaint charges the city with a “pattern of neglect and systemic disregard for the health and wellbeing of West Oakland’s residents, as demonstrated by its continuous authorizations of expanded freight infrastructure activities at the Port of Oakland and the former Oakland Army base while failing to ensure adequate health and safety protections for the surrounding community.”

The port authority, the complaint states, has continuously expanded maritime, shipping and transport activities “in a manner that similarly exposes West Oakland residents to severe air pollution emissions without adequate mitigation.”

The city and port have conducted their activities “to manipulate decision making and push through harmful expansions of freight activities for decades … (and) have refused to engage in a meaningful analysis of or process by which to address the negative health and environmental implications of their actions,” the complaint states.

Citing various sources, the complaint states West Oakland’s population is 49 percent black, 17 percent Latino, 15 percent white and 13 percent Asian.

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.