Welcome to Oakland; Please Don't Spill 

For years, the city's fire department ignored warnings that it lacked the means to successfully respond to hazardous waste spills within Oakland.

When you hear about the state government fining organizations for knowingly putting their employees in harm's way, you probably think of steel foundries or the noxious oil refineries that scar the landscape of the Sacramento River. You don't usually think of a fire department crew tasked with cleaning up toxic spills.

But that's exactly what happened on April 20, when the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health declared that managers of the Oakland Fire Department had "willfully" failed to train firefighters working under its Hazardous Materials Response Team, and that 90 percent of its own staff didn't know how to identify and clean up hazardous materials. The city of Oakland is among the dirtiest in Northern California, with a bumper crop of heavy industries located right next to low-income residential neighborhoods. It's home to the third-largest port on the West Coast, through which tens of thousands of cubic meters of potentially toxic chemicals flow every year. This city's fire department has two main challenges: fighting fires that break out in the hills each summer, and responding when an electroplating facility or a truck hauling chemical products through West Oakland has an accident. But according to the state government, department managers decided that they could let at least one job slide. "They knew the training and testing needed to be done, and they didn't do it," says Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

It all started in early November, when an anonymous fire department employee called the division and made numerous complaints about safety and training practices in the department's downtown station. Two years earlier, the state had warned Oakland fire officials about numerous penny-ante violations, including failing to refer employees to doctors and shoddy medical record-keeping. This time, as investigators from the division's Oakland office visited the station, they found that department managers hadn't changed their ways, despite the previous warning. In addition, flammable chemicals were being stored at the station in a manner that could potentially cause a fire. That's right -- there was almost a fire at an Oakland fire station.

But the department's most serious violation involved training and testing. Its Hazardous Materials Response Team is required to ensure that its forty staff members are regularly retrained in handling toxic events and tested to make sure they are up to speed. Instead, division officials found that only four staff members had been trained over the course of the previous year. And when those officials forced the Hazardous Materials firefighters to undergo competency tests, 90 percent of them failed. The division issued thirteen citations to the fire department, including four citations for repeatedly failing to comply with safety practices, and one for "willfully" failing to train its own personnel. The fines totaled $25,245; the fire department immediately appealed the penalty.

Fire Department Chief Gerald Simon did not return a phone call seeking comment, and Leroy Griffin, the head of the Hazardous Materials Response Team, referred the matter to the department's public information officer, who similarly did not return a phone call. But according to division spokesman Fryer, the state would never have issued a willful citation unless it had the department dead to rights. "Whenever you have a willful citation, that carries a heavier burden," he says. "It requires more evidence that there was knowledge on the part of the employer that there was a problem, and they did not take action to address it."

Fryer claims that since the investigation began, fire officials have retrained their Hazardous Materials Team and are back in compliance with state law. But the Division of Occupational Safety and Health first warned the fire department to clean up its act in 2001, and it took an anonymous whistleblower to get the department to finally take hazardous materials training seriously. If the state's allegations are true, there's no telling how long the department may have been unqualified to deal with toxic spills -- and little evidence to suggest that its leaders might not backslide again once the heat is off.

This couldn't have happened in a less appropriate place. It's one thing if Orinda's fire department isn't up to speed on how to cope with a toxic spill, but Oakland -- especially West Oakland -- is swimming with industrial poisons. In 2001, the last year for which data is available from port officials, 166,247 metric tons of chemicals and chemical products were shipped in and out of the Port of Oakland, and many of the trucks and rail lines that haul them to and from the port went through residential neighborhoods. According to a 2002 report by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, West Oakland is uniquely vulnerable to toxic accidents. Ten percent of the neighborhood's "sensitive sites" -- that is, schools, child-care centers, or parks -- are located within an eighth of a mile of facilities deemed by the federal government to be at high risk for industrial accidents.

And it will only get worse, according to Meena Palaniappan, a senior research associate for the Pacific Institute. By 2010, she says, the port's expansion plans will put up to 22,000 truck trips onto West Oakland streets every day, a marked increase from the current level of 12,000 trips. If the fire department can't be relied upon to respond to an accident, she says, to whom can West Oakland residents turn? "This is incredibly bad news," Palaniappan says. "In communities of color and low-income communities, there's so much integration between residential, light industrial, and heavy industrial uses, that it's really troubling that Oakland doesn't have a standard procedure for dealing with toxic waste spills."

But it's not just the lumpen poor who have been dwelling among poison in Oakland -- even the city's wine-sipping gallery patrons can get a toxic dose now and then. Consider the ArtShip, a World War II vintage supply ship that had served as a floating gallery in the Oakland estuary in the late 1990s. When the ArtShip Foundation couldn't afford to keep the gallery operating, they sold it for scrap last year, and its new owners were preparing to tow the ship to China and strip it down. But three months ago, activists from Earth Justice and the Basel Action Network contacted the Environmental Protection Agency. The ArtShip, they warned, was probably stuffed with PCB toxins, and federal law prohibits exporting contaminated materials to countries that lack appropriate regulations. EPA investigators surveyed the ship. "We were looking for material that had PCBs in excess of fifty parts per million," says Max Weintraub, the EPA's regional PCB coordinator. "We found PCBs in excess of 125,000 parts per million."

The EPA promptly put the kibosh on the deal, and the ship currently sits at Mare Island, along with roughly eighty other old WWII ships. None of the gallery patrons were exposed to the material, Weintraub says, but such ironies are just part of life in the toxic stew that is the city of Oakland -- a city that at one time apparently had no team qualified to deal with hazardous spills.

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