The polluting Port

Pub date March 24, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Manuel Rivas is an independent truck driver working at and living near the Port of Oakland, where diesel exhaust from old idling vehicles has created a serious public health threat.

Officials have long talked about addressing the problem (see "ImPorting injustice," 7/17/07). In the meantime, however, Rivas and his twin boys — whom he has cared for alone since his wife died in a car accident 12 years ago — struggle with respiratory problems on low wages and with no health insurance.

"I’ve spent 21 years working as a truck driver. This is where I’ve spent most of my life, and I don’t have anything from it. You can see for yourself," Rivas tells the Guardian in Spanish, gesturing to his small, rundown house and showing us his empty refrigerator. "We are people, not slaves. We fuel the economy not just here in Oakland, but throughout the country."

Rivas works eight to 10 hours per day and says he takes home about $5.55 per hour after the expenses for his truck. Deregulation of the trucking industry has left drivers, many of them immigrants, as independent contractors with low wages and few benefits.

"We don’t get any vacation time," he said. "We don’t get health insurance. If we get sick, then we have to pay out of our own pockets."

And they do get sick. Diesel exhaust is a toxic air pollutant. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports organized an asthma screening in West Oakland last month to address problems around the Port. "Small particulates get breathed into the lower reaches of the lungs and cause irritation and inflammation, an increase in respiratory problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a long term risk of lung cancer," said Dr. Robert Harrison, a UCSF professor who participated in the screenings.

Sandra Witt of the Alameda County Health Department said West Oakland residents are exposed to three times more diesel particulate matter than the rest of the Bay Area, thanks to the Port and nearby freeways.

"We’re driving all day, every day, and at this moment my throat is very dry and it hurts, so I take cough drops," Rivas said. He is concerned that one of his sons recently came down with bronchitis and was unable to play soccer.

Harrison says that children and the elderly are most susceptible to toxic air. "Bronchitis is one of the symptoms of respiratory problems from diesel pollution," Harrison said. One in five children in Oakland has asthma, the highest rate in California.

But treating a large population for respiratory problems is difficult. "There really isn’t any way to treat the community unless you reduce air pollution," Harrison said. "I found that the independent status of truck drivers keeps them vulnerable to health problems."

Port Commissioner Margaret Gordon, a longtime community activist before joining that body in 2007 (see "Port tack," 10/10/07), has pushed the Port to take responsibility for its contribution to the problem. "Diesel is bad in any way it comes. In trucks, trains, ships, cargo, or cabin equipment, it’s bad. But the closest thing to the people of West Oakland are the emissions from the trucks," Gordon said.

Swati Prakash of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports hopes that new legislation will alleviate some problems from diesel pollution. "For the first time you have state regulations coming down the pipe," Prakash told us. "The California Air Resources Board has recognized how deadly diesel pollution is."

On Jan. 1, 2010, pre-1994 trucks will not be allowed on Port land and 1994-2003 trucks must be retrofitted to reduce diesel particulate matter by 85 percent. But Rivas can’t afford a new truck, so he and other drivers are hoping to become employees of trucking companies.

The Port’s Comprehensive Truck Management Plan (CTMP), which will address diesel pollution and related issues, is now being drafted and is set to go before the commission for approval in June. Richard Sinkoff, the Port’s director of environmental programs and planning, said staff is working at an accelerated schedule because of the urgency of the issue.

"I think the board really understands that public health is a concern for all of us," Sinkoff said. "Time is always of the essence when dealing with a recognized public health issue."