The Stink in East Oakland 

A foundry once identified as Alameda County's second largest emitter of toxic air pollution faces renewed calls to clean up its act.

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Yet if, despite those measures, the air district's Health Risk Assessment shows that the foundry does not meet the agency's new air pollution standards, Nudd said the district can require AB&I to install more pollution-control measures.

Investigations of pollution at AB&I have already generated a lot of data. Communities for a Better Environment led a community air-monitoring effort in 2014, which identified a number of toxic pollutants near the foundry. In 2017, the air district, together with the state Air Resources Board and researchers at UC Davis, conducted another study, but the results, released in 2018, were inconclusive. Nudd said the monitoring method did not capture the relevant information about AB&I emissions.

After that, the air board continued its efforts to investigate AB&I. It hired Eastern Research Group to conduct more tests, visited the foundry several times, and met with foundry managers last November. According to an affidavit filed in Alameda County Superior Court by Kristen McKinley of the Air Board, inspectors identified odors of "burned resin (organic compound emissions), hot metal, asphalt, burned brake, and pungent odors, possibly aldehydes." Because Air Board staff felt more tests in specific areas of the operation were needed, in April McKinley began negotiating with the foundry to allow inspectors into the facility again.

McKinley's affidavit, filed July 3, describes a three-month negotiation with AB&I, which continued to raise questions about the planned investigation. The Air Board asked for and received a warrant from the court requiring the foundry to allow the inspection. Later that month, the Air Board went back to court saying it no longer needed the warrant because it had worked things out with AB&I. The inspections took place July 10 through 16. Results are not yet available.

This "drawn-out process" of data collection is partly because the technical challenges of identifying the exact source of such pollution are quite difficult, said Sakaguchi of Communities for a Better Environment. But he and some East Oakland residents suspect that it also "shows that air regulators just don't take the complaints and the public health of East Oaklanders seriously."

Dr. Marya was a bit more blunt: "This is environmental racism," she said. "There's already data enough to show what's happening in East Oakland."

She called the air district's complaint process a farce. "I call and they send someone three to five hours later, after the wind has shifted," Dr. Marya said. "The inspector comes to the house and stands next me and sniffs. If he can't smell it, it's not a verified complaint. I'm a scientist. We have so many tools to detect pollution. It's a slap in the face."

Dr. Marya said neighbors recently conducted a crowdfunding campaign that raised $5,000 to buy their own "sophisticated, portable air monitor." They will use it in a community air monitoring project, she said, involving thirty people including scientists from UC Berkeley and legal experts, all coordinated by Goolsby and Communities for a Better Environment. "The odors are a real problem too," Dr. Marya said. "Why should we have to smell that shit? Do we need data to prove it's a public nuisance? No! It's all over Nextdoor."

Tracy Lee, of the air district's complaints division, said an agency staff member goes as soon as possible to meet with the complainant and observe the odor together. "We take complaints very seriously," Lee said. The complaint is recorded whether the inspector smells the odor or not, and the air district then investigates to try to pinpoint the source. "We try to establish if it's a public nuisance — the state health and safety code has a very specific definition of public nuisance — and if the operation is in compliance with its permits."

Scott, of Communities for a Better Environment, was skeptical. "This is not a system I see really working. They tell us to report problems, but nothing happens after that. When folks call, they get the same results as when they don't call." In response to such criticisms, the air district is about to start updating its complaint process, Lee said, and is planning a series of workshops to get public input.

In addition to its specific regulation of AB&I, the air district has recently started working with Communities for a Better Environment and other organizations to create a work plan for reducing pollution in East Oakland, under the provisions of a new state law that requires action to cut pollution in the most-impacted communities.

Scott commented that this process could be helpful if it brings more focus to the issue, or it might just result in "another picture book with data. I reserve my excitement for when things happen."

Whatever the new data shows, Dr. Marya said that she wants AB&I out of the community. "We don't need polluters like that around our children," she said. "Black and brown lives matter."

Communities for a Better Environment has talked with several city departments about legal tools that the city could use to force AB&I out of East Oakland. Ernesto Arevalo, the northern program director of Communities for a Better Environment, said one possible strategy would be to rezone the neighborhood so that the foundry would no longer be a permitted use, then give AB&I a certain number of years to amortize its investment. Or the Oakland Neighborhood Law Corps, part of the city attorney's office, could prosecute the refinery as a public nuisance, as it has done with other polluters. But so far none of this is in the works.


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