Melody Parker

Blocking the Port


GREEN CITY A lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is impeding the Port of Oakland’s ability to regulate dirty trucks.

In April, a U.S. District Court sided with the American Trucking Association (ATA), placing a preliminary injunction on both ports’ clean truck programs and prompting ports across the nation to amend their clean truck programs to avoid similar lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Port Commission was expected to vote on whether to approve a Comprehensive Truck Management Program for the Port of Oakland at its June 2 meeting, which would ban trucks that do not comply with new state air quality regulations and require trucking companies to register with the port.

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports (see "The polluting Port," 3/25/09), a mix of environmental, labor, interfaith, and community-based organizations, criticizes the Truck Management Program for falling short of a more comprehensive policy, but blames the shortcomings on the legal injunction secured by ATA. "The litigation has really tied their hands," says coalition director Doug Bloch, who helped organize a June 2 protest against what his group characterized as the trucking industry’s "obstructionist tactics."

Rather than targeting clean air regulations, ATA has focused its attack on a ban on low-salaried independent drivers from the port. Proponents of the ban argue that that an employee driver-based system would be more effective than the current system of independent drivers, because the cost burden of emissions upgrades would then fall onto trucking companies rather than independent contractors who often cannot afford emissions retrofits. "Truck drivers are scrambling" to afford retrofits required by stringent air quality regulations that become effective Jan. 1, Bloch notes. While the new rules will help alleviate West Oakland pollution, "they aren’t sustainable if the people responsible for meeting them can’t pay," he says.

The Port of Oakland commissioned an economic impact study by Beacon Economics, which favored an employee driver-based trucking system over independent drivers for similar reasons.

David Bensman, a labor studies and employment relations professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has studied port trucking extensively. "Deregulation created a hypercompetitive industry where truckers have no bargaining power," Bensman says. The result is a sort of race to the bottom. If the drivers refuse to accept a substandard rate, workers look at the long line of semis waiting, engines running, and see many others willing to work for that low rate. "The American Trucking Association is defending an industry model that is broken," Bensman asserts. "The system is not able to put trucks on the road that are clean and efficient."

ATA, however, believes that forcing truck companies to take on more employees will harm the entire industry’s competitive edge. Independent drivers have power and flexibility over their business practices, according to Clayton Boyce of ATA. "They are an independent business because they want to be an independent business. Anyone can give that up and become an employee if they wish," he says. "If they can’t run a business and buy the health insurance for themselves and maintain their trucks, then they shouldn’t be in that business."

At the Port of Oakland, however, 83 percent of truck drivers are independent, and only 17 percent work under truck companies. A report by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy found that 62 percent of 1,500 truck drivers in the Port of Oakland do not have health insurance or the means to buy cleaner trucks. The proposed Comprehensive Truck Management Program does include a provision that would assist independent truckers with emissions retrofits, but the $5 million allotted doesn’t begin to cover the estimated $200 million price tag calculated by Beacon Economics, according to Bloch.

The Port of Oakland’s Maritime Committee passed a resolution supporting the findings of the Beacon Economics study and urging the adoption of an employee-driver system, but little can be done to move forward with it until after the Southern California injunction has been lifted. The Port Commission was also scheduled to vote on that resolution June 2.

The American Lung Association estimates that one in five children in West Oakland has asthma. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, diesel pollution is five times higher in West Oakland than in other parts of Alameda County.

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.

The polluting Port



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."

Biodiesel’s leaps



GREEN CITY Biofuels, which decrease reliance on polluting and planet-cooking fossil fuels, made a couple of big advances in San Francisco in recent weeks.

Michele Swingers and Robin Gold seized the key market by opening Dogpatch Biofuels Station on Pennsylvania and 22nd streets. The youthful partners say it’s the only station in San Francisco selling B100, or fuel made from 100 percent organic matter. San Francisco Petroleum finishes a distant second by selling B20, which is 20 percent biodiesel blended with 80 percent petroleum diesel.

The independent owners of Dogpatch Biofuels take the extra green step by trying to tap production sources that are as local as possible. "We should always be striving for a comprehensive picture of the resources that go into the production and transport of fuel," Swingers said. "We believe that locally sourced biodiesel from recycled oil is a far cry from corn-based ethanol. Further, we believe it’s a sustainable diesel alternative utilizing a waste product."

Dogpatch gets its biodiesel from as far away as Bently Fuels in Reno, Nevada, which blends fuel from recycled components, such as used vegetable oil from restaurants. Many biofuel manufacturers here on the West Coast buy virgin oil from the Midwest because it’s pretty cheap. But buying virgin oil for biofuel can increase the demand for its edible sources, like soybean and rapeseed crops, and drive up the cost of food. Now think about transporting millions of barrels of biofuel by fossil fuel–powered truck across the country. It seems wasteful, defeating the benefits of sustainable fuel.

San Francisco’s municipal fleet is a prime culprit of unsustainable sustainability practices: it buys soybean oil from the Midwest to power its trucks and Muni buses. Karri Ving, Biofuel Program Coordinator for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said that the city’s current system is better than using petroleum diesel from Iraq, but that it could be even more efficient.

Fortunately, Mayor Gavin Newsom just announced the launch of a new project that will take "brown grease" from sewers and turn it into a renewable biofuel for the city fleet. "Turning waste generated by local restaurants and other businesses into a sustainable fuel source is yet another major step in reaching our goals of carbon neutrality for city government by 2020," Newsom said.

He also touted the city’s progress toward other environmental goals, including zero-emission public transit by 2020, a 75 percent recycling rate by 2010, and zero waste by 2020.

"We are not going to be growing soybeans in San Francisco, so why not take this grease and make it into something usable and renewable, for that matter," Ving said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the California Energy Commission awarded the city $1.2 million in grants for the project. The SFPUC will provide a solid model for other cities looking to adopt similar programs and even show them how to save a buck in the process. For example, by putting the biodiesel processor at the site of the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant, the city repurposes property it already owns. Grease already gets stuck inside the plant’s "grease trap," racking up $3.5 million every year in cleanup costs. The new project will potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

"The overall goal is for the wastewater division of the PUC to help the city gain fuel independence to import less diesel and export less grease to surrounding cities," Ving said. "Millions of pounds of rancid material is exported out of the city, making a case for environmental injustice." San Francisco’s brown grease is exported to East Bay landfills, which are often sited in areas with high minority populations. The Oceanside brown-grease project is supposed to be up and running by November.

"So if we can turn that tarlike bunker fuel into a clean-burning biofuel made from restaurant waste, it’s a win on a number of levels," Ving said. "The only downside is that we should have been doing this 50 years ago, but now we’re in a situation where we recognize the global and health issues, and we have a solution that we really want to get moving on."

The fight against local and global climate change is on. With small- and large-scale infrastructure falling into place, the biofuels movement in San Francisco is gathering momentum.

Strange bedfellows



GREEN CITY San Francisco’s bicycle community found itself in the strange position of encouraging Superior Court Judge Peter Busch — someone many cyclists revile for his strict enforcement of a far-reaching injunction against bike projects in the city — to reject a city-sponsored bike safety proposal during a Jan. 22 hearing. It was one more sign of the desperation bicyclists and city officials are feeling over the three-year-old ban on all things bike-related, from new lanes to simple sidewalk racks (see “Stationary biking,” 5/16/07).

Judge Busch denied a city motion asking for the authority to make safety improvements at intersections that have proven dangerous to bicyclists, as well as a specific proposal by the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) to remove the bike lane at the most dangerous of those intersections, on Market Street at Octavia Boulevard, where 15 bicyclists have been hit by cars making illegal right turns onto the freeway since the revamped intersection opened in September 2005.

But the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other bicyclists opposed the MTA proposal, arguing it would be more dangerous and holding a Jan. 16 rally at the site, which drew several supportive local politicians, including Sen. Mark Leno, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, and Bevan Dufty. “As people who ride through that intersection every single day, we believe the proposal would have made the intersection more dangerous. So I’m really relieved that the judge saw that,” SFBC director Leah Shahum told us.

She was less pleased with the judge’s refusal to relax the injunction, which stems from a legal challenge to the San Francisco Bicycle Plan. San Francisco resident Rob Anderson and attorney Mary Miles successfully sued the city in June 2006, arguing that the plan was hasty and did not include an environmental impact report (EIR), as required by state law, to determine how the plan would affect traffic, neighborhoods, businesses, and the environment.

“This case has been very discouraging because there are a handful of activists against bicyclists in the city,” City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey said. “The hearing showed that the city has to go to court any time it wants to improve the streets for bicyclists.”

Although Judge Busch denied the city’s request to remove the bike lane, he hinted that the injunction would probably be lifted this spring with the completion of the Bike Plan’s EIR. “There was a strong message from the judge that he sees the bigger picture about getting the EIR done. It just needs to be complete and fair and accurate. Then the city can get back to work making the streets safer,” Shahum said.

Both Anderson and the SFBC, who usually agree on little, agreed on the judge’s latest ruling. Anderson advocates maintaining streets for cars and pedestrians, while the SFBC works to make roads safer for bicycles and encouraging bicycling as an important transportation option. Shahum urges city officials to rethink their approach to make Market and Octavia safer. “The city really does need to move on to the next steps to make the intersection better,” she said.

Although the number of bicyclists in San Francisco has doubled in recent years in light of volatile gasoline prices, the economic crisis, and greater awareness of global climate change, Anderson continues to argue that bicyclists will always be a minority interest, even in San Francisco.

“We have to make the streets as safe as possible without strangling the rest of the traffic,” Anderson told the Guardian. “Only a small percentage of the population in San Francisco use bicycles as their main mode of transportation. It’s not fair for the bike people to design the streets just to benefit them.”

Dorsey and Deputy City Attorney Audrey Pearson oppose Anderson, who has said bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity that the city shouldn’t be promoting. “As a policy, the city tries to discourage cars in San Francisco,” Dorsey said, referring to the longstanding “transit first” policies.

Now that the public comment period for the Bike Plan’s Draft EIR is over and Judge Busch has ruled to keep the bike lane at Market and Octavia, all parties are looking ahead to spring when the court is expected to lift the injunction on improving bike safety in San Francisco, unleashing nearly 60 new bike projects. That is, unless Anderson and Miles can find a way to stop them.