They Were Cleaning Up One Of America's Most Polluted Neighborhoods. Then Came COVID-19.

Coronavirus lockdowns may have temporarily cleaned West Oakland's air, but the pandemic also threatens to take away the funding to keep it that way.

Margaret Gordon takes a deep breath of fresh air. After decades of working to improve the air quality in West Oakland, California, one of the country’s most polluted neighborhoods, she welcomes the reprieve.

The exhaust fumes from the highways surrounding her neighborhood have finally let up, and Gordon hears fewer trucks leaving the nearby Port of Oakland each day as the coronavirus pandemic reduces traffic. Within the first seven weeks of the shelter-in-place rules, which were imposed in March, CO₂ levels dropped about 50% in West Oakland, compared to seven weeks prior. 

But the temporary reduction merely obscures a grim reality in a community that has long fought against environmental harm. The fall in air pollution won’t last. As soon as the pandemic lockdown is lifted, the port will resume business, the trucks will multiply and the dirty air will return. 

“We are going to have a vaccination for COVID-19. There’s no vaccination for air pollution,” said Gordon, who co-founded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to study the health effects of industry on the high-population area. She’s known as the grandmother of the city’s environmental justice movement.

Across the U.S., cleaner air and quieter streets have been one silver lining of the lockdowns, but the pandemic has also been used as cover to push for an array of anti-environmental measures. At a national level, the Trump administration continues to roll back environmental protections, including pursuing a rule to gut Obama-era auto emission standards and allow cars and light trucks to emit more planet-heating carbon dioxide. And in March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would “use discretion” when enforcing regulations, meaning that businesses could exceed emissions cutoffs if they determined the pandemic made enforcement impractical. 

Shipping trucks leave the Port of Oakland on Wednesday in Oakland, California.
Shipping trucks leave the Port of Oakland on Wednesday in Oakland, California.

Clean air measures are stalling at a state and local level, too, and for Gordon’s community, it feels particularly cruel. After a decades-long fight, West Oakland was on the cusp of implementing a new five-year plan to ease the heavy pollution. Now that progress is coming undone.

In May, California proposed a tightened budget that could mean a cut of $50 million to California’s Community Air Protection Program, which would have funded that plan and others like it. The pandemic has also diverted local attention away from implementing regulations that would have cut emissions, while California’s industry groups are pressuring the state to relax its own regulations. 

All this is happening at a time when it’s becoming increasingly clear that long-term exposure to air pollution makes people more vulnerable to death from the novel coronavirus. 

Breathing in tiny particles called particulate matter (PM 2.5) increases the risk of asthma, respiratory disease and lung cancer, and it weakens the immune system ― all pre-existing conditions that make people much more vulnerable to the coronavirus.  

Life expectancy in the community is 24 years shorter than in neighborhoods in the nearby Oakland Hills, just five miles away.

An April Harvard study looked at more than 3,000 U.S. counties and found that someone who lives for decades in a county with high levels of these particles is 8% more likely to die of COVID-19 than someone living in a county with just slightly lower pollution levels. Those most affected are poor people and people of color, who tend to live near major pollution sources like industrial plants and busy roads

It’s a scary statistic for residents in West Oakland. Spanning just two square miles, the neighborhood is wedged between three major freeways and plays host to a number of polluters, including a recycling and waste transfer facility, a concrete plant, a wastewater treatment plant and a Union Pacific railyard.

Then there is the Port of Oakland. Ships bringing in cargo contribute to diesel emissions, as do the 9,000 trucks loaded with wood pulp, fruit, nuts and meat that drive to the port each year. As a result, West Oakland has 90 times more diesel pollution per square mile than the rest of California.  

The Port of Oakland, a major container port on the West Coast, contributes to air pollution in the adjacent neighborhood of W
The Port of Oakland, a major container port on the West Coast, contributes to air pollution in the adjacent neighborhood of West Oakland.

Residents in this neighborhood have long shouldered the burden of poor health because of the pollution they live with. At West Oakland Middle School, nearly a quarter of students have asthma or other breathing problems, and asthma brings West Oakland residents to the emergency room nearly twice as often as in the rest of the county. Life expectancy in the community is 24 years shorter than in neighborhoods in the nearby Oakland Hills, just five miles away, in part a product of systemic racist policies that neglect the health of people in a predominantly Black community in favor of industry. 

“You cannot talk about pollution if you don’t have a sense of the history,” Gordon said, nodding to policies like zoning, redlining and subprime lending that have shaped the community for more than a century. Its designation as an industrial zone in 1912 meant that immigrants and later African Americans barred from buying homes elsewhere could find refuge in the neighborhood’s polluted quarters. “We were expendable,” Gordon said.

Gordon moved into a house a half-mile from the Port of Oakland in 1992. When one of her sons and three of her grandchildren developed asthma, Gordon started to ask questions: “Why is this truck in my neighborhood? Why is this truck on my block? Why do we have such high rates of asthma, respiratory disease and cancer?” After a quarter-century of activism, data collection and a 2017 civil rights lawsuit against the City of Oakland, which resulted in no substantive commitments to reduce pollution, she had answers and policy recommendations, but the air quality had changed little. 

Recently, however, it seemed that real progress was being made to implement meaningful pollution-cutting measures. 

The big hope was in West Oakland’s five-year action plan to reduce pollution. Produced under the umbrella of California’s Air Protection Program, it was approved in December 2019. Community members ― including Gordon ― helped shape its 89 strategy recommendations, including transitioning to electric trucks, limiting hours trucks can operate within the community, and installing indoor air filter systems in homes, schools and public facilities in high-pollution areas. 

Now the pandemic threatens to bring progress on pollution to a halt. West Oakland’s action plan is funded by the state, and California’s revised budget proposal  ― which faces a June 15 vote ― would cut funds for implementing it to pretty much zero. 

Gavin Armstrong, 12, rides his bike in West Oakland, California, near the busy Port of Oakland.
Gavin Armstrong, 12, rides his bike in West Oakland, California, near the busy Port of Oakland.

Though funding for environmental incentives (such as subsidies for replacing polluting engines with electric ones) would remain intact, without this implementation money, progress toward a zero-emission port would stagnate. Everything from enforcing idling restrictions to reducing road dust by street sweeping would take a hit. There is some hope, thanks to advocacy efforts, that a proposed budget compromise would mean more money, but Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has yet to weigh in.

On top of the potential budget cuts, the steering committee implementing West Oakland’s plan hasn’t met for two months due to the pandemic. And liaisons designated to work on the project by the City of Oakland have been pulled to work on the COVID-19 response. “The city has other priorities now to respond to COVID,” said Azibuike Akaba, senior public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Gordon worries that the plan she helped devise could fall by the wayside without ongoing political will:  “We get a commitment from the mayor, but her staff is moving at a snail’s pace.” 

Part of the concern stems from the nonbinding nature of the anti-pollution plan. “The city and the port are participating in the process, but they are not legally obligated,” Akaba said. This potentially leaves the plan toothless. 

What’s more, the Port of Oakland has a history of dragging its feet on environmental protections. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach pledged in 2017 to switch to zero-emissions cargo-handling equipment by 2030 and trucks by 2035. But the Port of Oakland produced a watered-down plan, which avoided committing to deadlines, according to Michelle Ghafar, an attorney with Earthjustice working to get the Port of Oakland to reduce pollution. 

Inaction from the port has meant that West Oakland continues to face heavy air pollution, acutely dangerous now in light of the connection between pollution and COVID-19 deaths.

“The Port of Oakland didn’t have to put the community in the position it’s in now. If they had invested in this infrastructure earlier, perhaps the port could have mitigated some of those effects,” Ghafar said, pointing to residents’ COVID-19 risks.

Ken Vasquez, 10, rides his bike at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park while shipping trucks haul freight at the Port of Oakland. Ne
Ken Vasquez, 10, rides his bike at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park while shipping trucks haul freight at the Port of Oakland. Nearly a quarter of middle school students in West Oakland have asthma or other breathing problems.

Statewide environmental regulations are under threat as well, as California industry groups use the pandemic as an opportunity to push for relaxed rules. In a letter to Newsom, the president of California’s Chamber of Commerce requested that the process for developing new regulations on businesses be postponed due to the health crisis ― including regulations on at-berth vessels and clean trucks, both of which affect the health of the West Oakland community. Other industry letters have asked for all environmental regulations to be suspended until the coronavirus pandemic is over. 

“It’s galling that the industry is using this particular moment to delay the regulations. We know that air pollution exacerbates the impact of COVID-19. Delaying that rule-making now more than ever has disastrous effects on the health of the community,” Ghafar said. 

Though statewide budget cuts could deal a blow to the environmental community, legislators are attempting to right other environmental wrongs. California and eight other states recently sued the EPA for choosing not to enforce pollution monitoring and reporting requirements, allowing companies “free rein” to determine when compliance is impractical due to COVID-19, according to the lawsuit filed on May 13. 

There’s still a sliver of hope that environmental budget cuts could be rejected. Groups like the California Environmental Justice Alliance are pushing back, hoping that the connection between air pollution and COVID-19 could garner more support for the Air Protection Program to be fully funded. “At the end of the day, we want to see direct emissions reductions in those communities,” said Neena Mohan, a program associate at the organization. 

That would mean funding for West Oakland’s five-year plan, but Gordon has learned the hard way to put her faith in action, not hope. For now she’s relishing the cleaner air: “It’s the first time we’ve had a real emission reduction day to day in 25 years of doing this work.” 

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