Drawing a line in the toxic triangle

rebeccab@sfbg.com

GREEN ISSUE California is often viewed as being among the brightest shades of green. The Golden State’s landmark climate-change legislation has proven magnetic for green-tech startups, while Northern California is defined in part by its longstanding love affair with natural foods and solar power. San Francisco boasts a well-used network of bike routes, a ban on plastic bags, mandated composting of kitchen scraps, and a host of urban agriculture projects.

While much of the Bay Area’s environmental reputation is well-deserved, things look different from poor neighborhoods where homes are clustered beside hulking industrial facilities and public health suffers. For years, grassroots organizations working in Richmond, Oakland, and Bayview-Hunters Point have sought to improve air quality and promote environmental justice in neighborhoods plagued by higher-than-average rates of respiratory disease, cancer, and other preventable illnesses.

The Rev. Daniel Buford of Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church told the Guardian that he began talking about the polluted areas of Richmond, Oakland, and San Francisco as a “toxic triangle” two decades ago. It was an analogy, he explained, that plays off the mysterious deaths that the Bermuda Triangle is famous for. Yet the label also served a purpose — to unite three communities of color that were fighting separate yet similar battles against health hazards associated with their surroundings.

“There were a lot of things that weren’t in place with public consciousness that are in place now,” Buford said.

Today, he isn’t the only one uttering the catch phrase. A host of community organizations banded together as the Toxic Triangle Coalition last year to organize three forums on environmental justice in the three cities. Advocates cast the neighborhood-specific problems as three parts of a regionwide phenomenon, highlighting how pollution from shipping, crude oil processing, freeway transportation, abandoned manufacturing sites, hazardous waste handlers, and other industrial facilities disproportionately affect communities of color, where poverty and unemployment rates are already high.

Buford views the Toxic Triangle Coalition as a strategy to mount pressure for stronger enforcement of environmental laws in disproportionately affected areas. “We live in the whole Bay Area — we don’t live in one little part of the Bay Area,” he noted. “Our coalition strongly urges our state representatives in each of the counties to call for a hearing at the state level.”

 

OIL WARS

In Richmond, California’s top greenhouse-gas emitter looms as an expansive backdrop of the city, a tangled network of smokestacks and machinery near a hillside cluster of large, cylindrical oil storage containers. Chevron Corporation’s Richmond Refinery was built more than a century ago. A few years ago, the oil company began making noise about how it was in need of an upgrade.

Weaving through a blue-collar residential area of Richmond in her sedan, Jessica Guadalupe Tovar recounted how Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the nonprofit she works for, revealed that Chevron hadn’t told the whole story when it was petitioning for a permit to expand the refinery. The oil company’s long-term goals, CBE learned from a financial report, included gaining capability to process thicker crude that tends to be sourced from places like Canada’s Alberta tar sands.

“We call it dirty crude,” she said. “But it’s really dirtier crude.”

Converting thicker crude to fuel requires higher temperatures and pressures — and that translates to higher greenhouse-gas emissions and a heightened risk of flaring and fires.

The refinery expansion could have meant an air-quality situation going from bad to worse. Public health problems such as asthma and cancer have spurred campaigns led by the West County Toxics Coalition, CBE, and other environmental justice groups. Tovar explained how CBE orchestrated an air-monitoring program in 2006, collecting samples from 40 homes in Richmond and 10 in Bolinas as a point of comparison.

While trace amounts of chemicals from household cleaners were present in both, samples from the Richmond residences also contained the same toxic compounds that spew from Chevron’s refinery. “We found pollution known to come from the oil refinery settling inside people’s homes,” Tovar explained. “Once it’s trapped in your home, it starts to accumulate.”

Chevron won its expansion permit by a slim margin in 2008 with a city council dominated by officials who had reputations for being friendly to the oil giant. Yet environmental organizations filed suit, saying the environmental impact report (EIR) approval was based on was illegal because it failed to analyze the company’s likely plans for heavier crude processing. A Contra Costa County judge ruled in favor of the environmentalists, halting the expansion project in 2009. Chevron appealed, but the decision was upheld in 2010.

Stopping the expansion was a substantial victory, but environmental justice advocates remain wary of Chevron — particularly after the company attempted to blame job losses on the green coalition that filed suit. “Chevron pit workers against us,” Tovar noted. “And also started saying, ‘This is why environmental laws are bad for the economy.'”

 

GLOBAL TRADE, LOCAL FUMES

Each day, the Port of Oakland fills with trucks waiting to load up on goods shipped in from around the globe on massive cargo vessels. It’s a local symbol of a globalized economy. But for the West Oakland neighborhoods surrounding the port, the daily gathering of diesel rigs means an unhealthy infusion of particulate matter into the air.

A report issued by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), the Pacific Institute, and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports found that West Oakland residents are exposed to particulate matter concentrations nearly three times higher than the regional average. Health studies have shown that asthma rates in West Oakland are five times higher than that of people living in the Oakland hills, and cancer risks are threefold compared to other Bay Area cities. For the truck drivers, the risk of cancer is significantly higher than average.

A state air-quality law that went into effect in early 2010 banned pre-1994, heavily polluting diesel trucks from the port, thanks in part to years of environmental campaigning that has publicized public-health impacts associated with the diesel pollution. Yet the new regulation brought an unintended consequence: for truck drivers who must purchase their own gas and pay for their own upgrades, the new rule was ruinous. A survey by the Public Welfare Foundation found that since the new environmental regulation went into effect, 25 percent of Oakland truck drivers had declared bankruptcy, been evicted, or faced foreclosure.

Retrofitting the trucks with new air filters is a five-figure prospect, while the cost of a new truck can clear $100,000. “At the end of the day … a lot of them will only take home about $25,000 a year,” explained EBASE spokesperson Nikki Bas. “It’s an immigrant workforce who are living in poverty.”

So the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which pushed for tougher air-quality regulations, is now pressuring for a reform of the trucking industry to place the cost of clean upgrades onto powerful trucking companies instead of low-wage drivers. The coalition’s campaign has sought to link the needs of the drivers and the surrounding community, organizing rallies with blue-green signs bearing the motto “Good Jobs & Clean Air” to call for a change to the truckers’ employment classification from independent contractors to employees, which would shift the cost of compliance onto employers instead of drivers.

West Oakland isn’t the only East Bay area inflicted by excessive levels of diesel particulate matter from trucks entering the Port of Oakland. The fumes also affect East Oakland neighborhoods bisected by the big rigs’ primary thoroughfares. In addition to truck traffic and freeways, East Oakland is also the site of numerous hazardous-waste handlers and abandoned industrial sites.

Nehanda Imara, an organizer with CBE who also helped put together the Toxic Triangle Coalition forums, described how her organization recruited volunteers to count the number of trucks passing through a heavily traveled East Oakland strip as a way to quantify the source of particulate matter pollution. They reached a tally of around 11,700 over the course of 10 days.

Some progress has been made to limit the exposure of diesel pollution for East Oakland residents. The city is working on a comprehensive plan to assess trucking routes, and a campaign to limit truck idling is helping to limit unnecessary tailpipe emissions.

Yet youth hospitalizations for asthma in East Oakland are 150 percent to 200 percent higher than Alameda County taken as a whole, and an air-monitoring project in that area revealed high levels of particulate matter exceeding state and federal standards.

“That’s also an environmental injustice,” Imara said. “When the laws are there, but not being enforced.”

 

TOXIC SOUP

In San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, environmental justice groups have spotlighted the toxic stew associated with the naval shipyard and other pollution sources for years. A 2004 report produced jointly by Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, the Bayview-Hunters Point Mothers Environmental Justice Committee, and the Huntersview Tenants Association outlined a “toxic inventory” of the area. The inventory depicts a more complicated web of toxic sources than the asbestos dust and naval shipyard cleanup that have been focal points of news coverage surrounding Lennar Corp.’s massive redevelopment plans for that neighborhood.

“Over half of the land in San Francisco that is zoned for industrial use is in Bayview-Hunters Point,” this report noted. “The neighborhood is home to one federal Superfund site, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard … a sewage treatment plant that handles 80 percent of the city’s solid wastes, 100 brownfield sites [a brownfield is an abandoned, idled, or underused commercial facility where expansion or redevelopment is limited because of environmental contamination], 187 leaking underground fuel tanks, and more than 124 hazardous waste handlers regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

The shipyard, meanwhile, has been the central focus of controversy surrounding plans to clean up and redevelop the area. People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) and Greenaction are currently challenging the EIR for Lennar’s massive redevelopment plan for the neighborhood, charging that the study is inadequate because a cleanup effort on the part of the U.S. Navy has yet to determine the level of toxicity that will need to be addressed, so the assessment is based on incomplete information. Asthma is commonplace in the Bayview, and health surveys have shown that the rates of cervical and breast cancer are twice as high as other places in the Bay Area.

“Our environmental issues are massive still, and it’s not just Bayview- Hunters Point,” notes Marie Harrison, a long-time organizer for Greenaction and a Bayview resident.

Harrison recalled the many times she’d gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to drive a friend’s or neighbor’s asthmatic child to the hospital. “That story has repeated itself tenfold in Richmond and in Oakland,” she added. Nor is the problem simply limited to those Bay Area cities, she said, noting that communities of color throughout the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 9 face similar issues.

As awareness about the scope of the problem has increased over the years, she said, “We start to say, my God, this triangle has to become a circle.”