The Recycler Relocation Project 

In West Oakland, sometimes recycling isn't so green.

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West Oakland has long been plagued by air pollution. Now a concerned group of residents and environmental organizations may be close to realizing a plan that they believe will help improve air quality, stimulate new economic development in a largely stagnant neighborhood, and invigorate the city through new green industry facilities. Their proposal is to move two recycling companies from densely populated West Oakland neighborhoods to a new shared location at the old Oakland Army Base.

West Oakland Neighbors and the El Cerrito-based Global Community Monitor want to relocate one of the recyclers, Custom Alloy Scrap Sales, because of community concerns about heavy metals and other toxics emanating from on-site smelting operations. Unlike most Oakland recycling companies, Custom Alloy Scrap Sales processes scrap metal at its facility, rather than shipping it elsewhere.

The coalition of residents and environmentalists have collected more than five hundred signatures from the West Oakland community in favor of relocating the company, said Jessica Hendricks, program coordinator for Global Community Monitor. The coalition, which includes West Oakland Air Monitors and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, along with other community and environmental organizations, also plans to broaden its outreach. "We've been pretty West Oakland-specific but this is an Oakland-wide decision, so we want to expand the issue to the larger community," Hendricks said.

The city has been receptive to relocating the recycler, and has set aside a portion of the army base known as the North Gateway, just north of West Grand Avenue between the I-80 and I-880. The campaign also has received support from West Oakland Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, and more recently from At-Large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. The city is expecting a joint proposal from Custom Alloy Scrap Sales and another West Oakland recycler, California Waste Solutions, which would share the North Gateway area under the current plan, according to Oakland Redevelopment Area Manager Al Auletta.

Treva Reid, spokeswoman for California Waste Solutions, said her company is working with Custom Alloy Scrap Sales on a proposal, which they hope to deliver to the city this year. "We've been partnering for some time," she said. "The community has been strong advocates, and both of our firms are committed."

Reid said California Waste Solutions wants to move because of community concerns about pollution from truck traffic, and because the company wants to build a new state-of-the-art facility on the army base that would better serve their customers, and create new jobs. Custom Alloy Scrap Sales officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

The relocation campaign began in 2007 when Global Community Monitor assisted a group of students at McClymonds High School to monitor the air quality around their neighborhood because of concerns about bad odors. They followed their noses from the school and eventually arrived at Custom Alloy Scrap Sales, where they believed the smells originated. "We saw some black smoke coming out of the stack," said Denny Larson, executive director of Global Community Monitor. "We smelled some weird odors, saw some strange dust in the neighborhood around the area, collecting on surfaces, and saw some gross-looking water dripping off pipes."

They collected dust from a windowsill at McClymonds, analyzed it, and found that there was metal collecting on it. Global Community Monitor officials then decided to conduct more sophisticated tests on days that the recycler was operating, and to collect samples downwind from the facility. They found several metals in the air, predominantly aluminum, but also nickel, cadmium, arsenic, magnesium, and lead, which they suspected were coming from the smelting operations.

Global Community Monitor then filed suit in October 2009 against Custom Alloy Scrap Sales for pollution from water runoff coming from the site. The suit was rapidly settled when the recycler agreed to spend $500,000 complying with regulations for storm-water runoff, as well as making other upgrades to their facilities.

Global Community Monitor's work also caught the attention of the West Oakland Neighbors and other community members who formed the West Oakland Air Monitors. They then asked the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to take action against the recycler, and began exploring the idea of relocating it to a more suitable spot.

Although an air district report released in January of this year concluded that there was no significant pollution coming from the smelting operations, the agency supported reasonable buffers between residential areas and heavy industry, and backed the idea of the recycler moving to the army base. The air district is also drafting new regulations for metal recyclers.

"I think CASS was being extra vigilant about their processing," said Linda McFadden, an activist with West Oakland Neighbors and West Oakland Air Monitors, referring to why the air district report found that the smelting operations were not polluting the neighborhood. Other community members also said they believe that extra scrutiny prompted the recycler to make the appropriate upgrades to their facility in time for the air district study.

The coalition also said the recycler was receptive to moving to the army base, and recognized an opportunity to assuage community concerns about pollution and expand their own operations with a larger, new facility. "I feel that Edward [Kangeter], the CEO of CASS, has spent a lot of time talking to the community," McFadden said. "They really want to upgrade their operations, but they don't want to spend the money to upgrade their operations if the community is going to be giving them a hard time."

The army base, however, has been notoriously difficult to develop, and has had numerous projects fall through since the city acquired the property in 2003. In January 2010, Oakland entered an exclusive negotiating agreement with developer Phil Tagami, whose California Capital Group has been responsible for renovations to the downtown Oakland Rotunda Building and the Fox Theater. Tagami's plan is to develop the army base with an emphasis on industry and infrastructure, and he is currently working on a master plan for infrastructure development.

Tagami estimates that the army base will need $525 million of demolition, hazardous cleanup, and improvements to electrical, sewer, and water- and storm-runoff systems before any vertical construction could occur. His plan is currently undergoing the necessary environmental review and the city hopes to begin demolition and cleanup within the next year or two. The soonest that work could begin on a new facility for the recyclers could be anywhere from four to six years. "We definitely think the recyclers are an appropriate use for the future of the army base," Tagami said. "How many, what their size requirements are, are issues that we still need to work out."

Ray Kidd, a member of West Oakland Neighbors, said that the community's next major challenge will be to ensure that the land vacated by the two recyclers will no longer be put to industrial use. There are also concerns that the property itself may be polluted from forty years of industrial activity. At a West Oakland Economic Development Working Group meeting on April 21, Margot Prado, a senior development specialist for the city, said she had offered Custom Alloy Scrap Sales funding for an environmental assessment, but was turned down.  

Kidd said that he believes such a study should be done before the recycler moves to the base. "We need to get some kind of assessment before these deals are complete," he said.

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