Oakland's Toxic Failure 

After Oakland failed for a decade to protect the public and firefighters from hazardous materials, the state stripped the city of these duties. And now investigators are looking into illegal shipments of toxic waste and the misuse of public funds.

On Thursday, March 19, a truck owned by the Arthur Young Debris Removal company pulled into a parking lot at the City of Oakland's sprawling maintenance and storage yard on Edgewater Drive, just across Interstate 880 from the coliseum. Several employees of the small, privately owned company stepped out of the truck and were greeted by Oakland Fire Department staffers. Together, they walked over to a small shed-like building that has several lockers. Inside the lockers were hazardous materials in drums, canisters, bags, and boxes.

According to firefighters who witnessed the scene, but whom the Express has agreed not to identify because they fear retaliation from the city, the Arthur Young employees removed the hazardous waste, but took few precautions, piling the waste haphazardly into the back of their truck. The workers, who appeared to be day laborers, packed corrosive and flammable substances beside poisonous powders and liquids. Then after filling the truck bed, they drove off city property.

But they didn't get very far. A California Highway Patrol officer intercepted them and ordered them to return to the Oakland maintenance and storage yard with their dangerous cargo. Investigators from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) arrived soon after and gathered evidence. The Oakland Fire Department dispatched its own hazmat team to the site. Firefighters dressed in full-body protective suits and breathing compressed air sealed off the area to contain leaking chemicals and test them.

click to enlarge Investigators are probing the illegal shipment of hazardous materials, like those photographed here in February, by the city through contractor Arthur Young Debris Removal company.
  • Investigators are probing the illegal shipment of hazardous materials, like those photographed here in February, by the city through contractor Arthur Young Debris Removal company.

If that sounds like a crime scene, that's because the City of Oakland and Arthur Young were breaking the law. Arthur Young Debris Removal has never been authorized by the state to transport hazardous waste, records show. And according to firefighters, the company's employees have never been trained to handle hazardous materials. Yet Oakland employed the company for years — without a contract — to pick up toxic chemicals from various locations around the city and to dispose of the waste, according to records obtained by the Express. From 2013 to the day of the interdicted waste shipment, the Oakland Fire Department paid Arthur Young Debris Removal $51,987 to transport and dispose of hazardous waste, according to city records obtained through a California Public Records Act request.

Officials with DTSC and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the shipment they intercepted in March, beyond confirming the fact that the incident occurred and that they're investigating the city's handling of toxic waste and its payments of tens of thousands of dollars to Arthur Young Debris Removal to pick up, ship, and dispose of hazardous materials. Authorities would not say whether the investigation is criminal or civil in nature, or whether they plan to file charges.

But the city's illegal shipments of toxic waste are just a small part of a much bigger problem that has festered for more than a decade. Public records and interviews with state regulators show that since the early 2000s, the Oakland Fire Department has repeatedly failed to protect city residents from hazardous materials stored and used at hundreds of locations, inspect businesses and other facilities, and enforce state hazardous materials laws.

These failures repeatedly put Oakland residents — mostly in low-income areas of the city's flatlands — at risk. Every day, people living or working near underground storage tanks containing fuels, lubricants and other noxious liquids, ran the risk of exposure to toxic plumes and fumes because the fire department had failed to inspect the sites and or had done so improperly. And firefighters, themselves, were at risk of being burned or poisoned because their own department had failed to do the inspections necessary to identify all the sites in the city where deadly materials are stored.

But that's not all: The state has also uncovered financial discrepancies in how Oakland handled more than a million dollars in funds that were supposed to be dedicated to the city's hazardous waste program. In addition, the city illegally transferred another quarter million dollars of hazmat program funds into Oakland's general fund. Moreover, both city and fire officials have provided few answers to account for these failures of management, which have thus far gone unreported in the news media.

At this point, it's unclear what state authorities plan to do regarding their investigation into Oakland's illegal shipments of toxic materials. But the state has already taken action to address the city's larger failure to protect the public. Last January, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) stripped the Oakland Fire Department of its responsibilities for protecting residents from hazardous materials, and placed the job in the hands of Alameda County. That decision will have far reaching consequences, including costs to the City of Oakland.

Public records also show that members of the city council and other top Oakland officials knew all along about the continuing failure of the fire department to correct numerous deficiencies in its hazardous waste inspection and enforcement program. They also knew the program's money had been illegally steered into the city's general fund, and that other budget irregularities indicated that the department had used its funds in questionable ways.

Yet for years, the problems deepened and placed the public and city employees in danger of toxic exposure every day.

Most of the story about the Oakland Fire Department's chronic failure to protect residents and its own staff is told in grueling detail in hundreds of pages of correspondence between the state and city officials dating back to 2001. That year, California's Division of Occupational Health and Safety (Cal OSHA) declared that Oakland fire officials had willfully failed to train firefighters on how to handle and clean up hazardous waste. The regulatory agency ordered the city to fix the problem, and the situation briefly improved. But then in 2003, an anonymous whistleblower contacted state officials alleging that the same safety violations were still plaguing the department.


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