The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter

Sierra Club Yodeler
ISSN 8750-5681
Published bi-monthly by the
San Francisco Bay Chapter
Sierra Club

The breathes and the breathe-nots - air quality and environmental justice

Despite fires, landslides, and the occasional burst of the economic bubble, Oakland hills residents live a decade longer (on average) than those in the flatlands below. Homicide and high-risk personal behavior do not explain the difference. According to Alameda County Health Department boss Dr. Tony Iton, geography has the most powerful impact on longevity in Oakland.

Obviously, affluence is a big factor in quality of life. Money can buy a better house in a "nicer" neighborhood and a better school for the kids, but county health data give a clue to the key difference: a recent Alameda County study of thousands of death certificates over 40 years shows that people in the flatlands not only die younger, but die much more often of causes linked to environmental toxics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that as much as 85% of heart and respiratory disease in the country is caused by diesel pollution. One need only drive across the city to be reminded that most diesel-emission sources are in or near lower-income communities of color.

Not until the mid-1990s, when the U.S. EPA identified diesel particulate matter (DPM) as a carcinogen, did people, mostly low-income and working-poor people living near distribution centers, train yards, and ports, begin to get support for what they had always suspected: that they might not be breathing the same air as more affluent neighbors just a few miles away. With diesel emissions, the closer the source, the greater the risk, and in Oakland's flatland neighborhoods, diesel trucks literally deliver toxic pollution to the front door.

DPM is heavier than air and tends to settle within a few miles of its source. Those living west of I-580 can attest that it's in their air, for it settles in a black sooty film on their window sills, countertops, and lungs. The concern started with PM10, or 10-micron particles. Recent research demonstrates that smaller DPM - down to 2.5 microns and smaller - are even more dangerous, for they travel deeper into the lungs, where they lodge in the tiniest passages, exposing delicate respiratory tissue to toxic packets of deadly chemicals including benzene, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. Studies of inner-city children have shown that exposure to diesel pollution before five years of age can permanently retard lung development.

This country has dealt effectively with the toxic emissions of gasoline engines. Decades ago blankets of choking smog and industrial smoke in cities like Pittsburgh and Los Angeles attracted national attention, resulting in the landmark Clean Air Act. That federal action led to elimination of acid rain in the northeastern U.S. and to automobiles that today emit little more than carbon dioxide. There is still work to be done on cars, but federal legislation did bring the elimination of deadly lead in gasoline and emission control systems that have helped turn the sky from sulfurous to blue in cities across the country.

Why haven't we similarly stopped the toxic emissions from diesel engines? Why are big commercial vehicles, belching thousands of pounds of pollution a year, roaming our neighborhoods, wrecking our streets, injuring pedestrians, and idling next to our homes, schools, senior centers, and hospitals? It's all in the name of commerce. In our great global system of consumption, the last mile is traveled by truck.

The credit for deregulation often goes to Ronald Reagan, but it was progressive Democrat Jimmy Carter who actually took the shackles of government influence off the trucking industry. Reducing the cost of trucking was seen as crucial to reducing the cost of imported goods - goods increasingly made by U.S. companies in overseas factories. Today local governments have little ability to influence rates, routes, or service in trucking. Instead of the unionized trucking companies of the 1970s, most trucking in this country is now done by independent contractors, owner-operators paid by the load or the mile and responsible for all operational costs of their individual vehicles. These truckers are hired by the cargo owners (the Wal-Marts, Targets, Costcos of the world) or the shipping companies that bring the goods from overseas.

The shippers are not responsible for maintaining the trucks. Railroads rely on truckers to bring loads to and from sidings, but they are not responsible for maintaining trucks. Shippers, railroads, manufacturers, retailers, and we the end consumers all want lower trucking costs - and so the pressure for lower prices and higher investment returns has been placed on the middle of the supply chain - the independent truckers - the sector with the least regulation, least capital, and least power to set the price for their service.

As a local industry, trucks are the ugly stepchildren of economic vitality. Everything we buy is carried on a truck at some time, and yet little attention is paid to the impacts of this industry on our urban landscape. Oakland policy-makers have long considered trucks to be a port problem. The Port of Oakland, though, recognizing that trucks spend most of their time on city streets and state highways, considers them a city and state traffic issue. Meanwhile, generation after generation of flatlands residents runs from city pillar to port post, pleading for relief, all the while sucking on their asthma inhalers. The truckers themselves are left to scramble for a living amidst cut-throat competition leaving little capital for modern, well-maintained equipment, off-street parking, or other basics of a properly managed industry.

The concept of "environmental justice", as defined in Clinton-era Presidential Order 12898, recognizes that poor people and communities of color are burdened by industrial pollution at levels disproportionate to the benefits those residents enjoy from our economy. A drive along Oakland's International Boulevard or a "toxic tour" with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project will show that the definition fits our flatland neighborhoods to a tee.

Poor and low-income people of color die younger, not because they prefer to live in polluted ethnic enclaves by the freeways, but because unregulated toxic industries are relegated to their communities by planners, policy-makers and moneyed business interests. Residents of east and west Oakland enjoy significantly fewer benefits of our ever-expanding economy, like access to health care, clean air, comsumer goods, travel, quality education, and upward mobility, than do residents a few miles east. Flatland residents subsidize those middle-class assets with their lives."

For information on west Oakland toxic tours, contact Athena Applon at the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, (510) 257-5640, ext. 0.

Brian A. Beveridge is a communicator and advocate on issues of air quality, land use, and public health. As a West Oakland resident, he serves as co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.


© 2009 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler