‘This is unacceptable’: Air-polluting industries face increased scrutiny in East Oakland

In the 10 years that Zinia Gangopadhyay has taught at Acorn Woodland Elementary in East Oakland, she says she’s noticed a “shocking” number of people around her getting sick, from cancer to breathing problems.

“We’ve heard of parents and families in the community, seemingly healthy parents who at very young ages have had strokes, and high numbers of students with inhalers and asthma,” said Gangopadhyay, who currently teaches fifth grade. 

The elementary school, which shares its campus with a preschool and the 81st Avenue public library branch, is less than half a mile from the AB&I Foundry, which manufactures cast iron pipes. For years, staff at Acorn Woodland have suspected that AB&I—which melts down scrap metal and emits dangerous chemicals into the air through its smokestacks—and other industrial polluters in the area are causing the unusual health problems, and members of the school community have joined neighbors and environmental justice organizers in East Oakland in calling on environmental regulatory agencies to do more to protect them from air pollution.

The message these groups have long received from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a state agency tasked with monitoring air pollution, is that while their air isn’t clean, it’s also not a major source of danger and that facilities like AB&I are not a source of excessive toxins.

The dispute over whether AB&I is a harmless neighbor or a public health danger pits environmental activists and members of the majority Black and brown communities that live, work, and learn near industrial facilities in East Oakland, against regulatory agencies such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and California Air Resources Board, which establish guidelines intended to protect the public but have limited power or political will to enforce these rules.

Community members say they’ve long suffered from air pollution, and that businesses haven’t accepted responsibility. They also feel that government regulators haven’t been effective in monitoring the air and stepping in to ensure their safety. 

But after years of advocacy, things are slowly changing.

In April, the Air District recognized for the first time the health risks East Oakland residents are facing, releasing a report showing that the AB&I Foundry is spewing higher levels of toxic emissions into nearby neighborhoods than previously acknowledged by the company and environmental authorities and that these emissions exceed risk thresholds. Recent air pollution research also shows that the stationary monitors the federal EPA and Air District use to measure air pollution levels in Oakland and in other cities often fail to capture air pollution dispersed across small distances. 

Meanwhile, a report released last August by the Oakland Unified School District—conducted by a team of environmental scientists and toxicologists—revealed elevated levels of three cancer-causing chemicals at the Acorn Woodland campus. One is benzene, a commonly-used chemical that is found in cigarettes and other materials. Benzene is also one of the carcinogens emitted by AB&I Foundry, and likely other industrial businesses in the area. 

East Oakland residents and environmental justice organizations are now building off this research to campaign for cleaner air. But they still face an uphill battle to hold polluting industries accountable and force regulators to clean up East Oakland’s skies.

A new mandate to clean up industrial pollution

For decades, AB&I has ranked as one of the top polluters in the city of Oakland, according to data collected by the state Air Resources Board. The foundry emits a noxious combination of heavy metals like lead and arsenic, and gases like nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide, as well as invisible but dangerous chemicals like benzenehexavalent chromium, and cadmium, which are known to cause cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Acorn Woodland Elementary school campus sits in a heavily industrial section of East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Acorn Woodland Elementary school campus sits in a heavily industrial section of East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

In addition to Acorn Woodland Elementary, thousands of residents live in the densely populated neighborhoods located a half-mile from the foundry. Wind blowing off the San Francisco Bay can carry emissions from the foundry into these residential zones, where it mixes with other sources of pollution, including from heavily trafficked truck routes and other factories.

Historically, environmental regulators haven’t taken many steps to significantly reduce emissions from AB&I. Part of the reason is that the foundry has been operating since 1906, long before most state and federal environmental laws were even on the books. AB&I’s permits to operate were issued long ago and, unless the foundry wanted to expand or change its equipment or processes, isn’t subject to a comprehensive review of community health risks by the Air District. 

For many years, air quality authorities recorded pollution levels coming from the foundry but did not associate the pollution concentrated in residential areas, schools, and nearby workplaces with the illnesses being experienced by people in the community. But after years of reporting oppressive odors and health issues to authorities, residents’ concerns were finally substantiated in a draft health risk assessment report about AB&I published by the Air District in April. 

The report is one of the first health risk assessments of an industrial facility permitted by the Air District since the agency adopted Rule 11-18 in 2017, which aims to reduce health risks and toxic emissions from existing industrial facilities in the Bay Area. Created in response to Bay Area residents’ concerns about the health impacts of air pollution, Rule 11-18 sets a cap on the risk levels posed by dangerous chemicals that polluting facilities, even those that have existed for many decades, can emit. 

Under the rule, if a facility exceeds a “risk action level” of 10 in one million, it must present a plan to reduce its pollution levels. A risk action level of 10 in one million essentially means that a person with long-term exposure to air pollution from a specific source has a 10 in one million chance of developing cancer because of it. The assessment of AB&I revealed a risk action level of 46 in one million, more than four times the acceptable limit set by the Air District.

The Air District estimates nearly 1,000 facilities throughout the Bay Area may have to take action to reduce their emissions levels because of the new rule. Aside from AB&I Foundry, there are two additional health risk assessments currently under public review—one for a crematory in Fremont, and the other for a power plant managed by the city of Santa Clara—and another 36 facilities in various stages of review by the Air District. AB&I was identified as a top priority for a comprehensive health risk assessment back in 2017, when the Air District found its toxic emissions on par with major polluters like a power plant or landfill, Carol Allen, engineering manager with the Air District, explained during a May 2021 presentation on the report.  

“While we have measured an 80% reduction in the average cancer risk due to air toxics since 1990, recent evaluations demonstrate that some Bay Area communities like East Oakland have higher health risk due to air toxics than other communities,” said Allen in the meeting. “This is unacceptable, and we are using all of our tools available to reduce Bay Area health risks and especially to reduce those health risk disparities in already overburdened communities.” 

AB&I foundry in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

AB&I foundry in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

None of this was a surprise to the neighbors and activists on the Zoom call, but it did mark a shift in the way the Air District has characterized the environmental threat facing East Oakland.

“This is the cancer risk as of now, after years of community pressure to clean up. Think of the generations of East Oaklanders who have breathed this in when environmental regulations were a lot laxer,” said Dan Sakaguchi, a researcher with Communities for a Better Environment, a 40-year-old environmental justice organization active in several cities, including Oakland.

Sakaguchi said the Air District report, while helpful, has a number of limitations. First, the report only looks at the cancer risk for housed residents, workers at facilities other than AB&I, and children who attend school nearby, leaving the roughly 200 AB&I workers and unhoused residents out of the assessment entirely.

Another limitation to the Air District’s report is that it only looks at emissions from toxic chemicals, which are often odorless carcinogens such as benzene or formaldehyde, and does not take into account particulate matter emissions that are invisible to the human eye but can get lodged in airways, or odors from the burning of organic compounds like sulfur, which are the source of many community members’ complaints, said Sakaguchi. 

AB&I Foundry has pushed back against the report’s findings. Michael Lowe, the general manager of AB&I, pointed out in an interview with The Oaklandside that the new risk-level threshold of 10 in one million used by the Air District in its assessment is substantially lower than the previous standard of 100 in a million.

Lowe defended the foundry’s operations, saying that emissions of carcinogens like hexavalent chromium and benzene are byproducts of melting down recycled iron products used to build pipes and that a different process would create different, if not worse, environmental problems.

“We could use pig iron. Pig iron is when you take iron ore, and you burn that and you melt all of it down to the pure ore, but that would cause much more greenhouse effect for the entire world,” said Lowe. “It’s much, much better for the entire world to melt scrap iron, and also keep it out of the landfill.”

The Air District is now requiring AB&I to devise a risk reduction plan, which will be evaluated and finalized sometime in September 2021. The goal is to reduce the health risk level due to emissions to 10 in one million or below. Once the plan is approved by the Air District, AB&I will have five years to implement the changes, and actual pollution levels may not drop until as late as 2028, according to a timeline presented by the Air District at the May meeting. 

AB&I could meet these requirements in a variety of ways. More than half of the foundry’s toxic emissions come from pipe casting machines while about 30% come from the molding operation, Allen explained in the meeting. Lowe said the foundry is moving the molding operation, which is the source of many community complaints about industrial odors, from East Oakland to Texas sometime next year. After the molding operation (which employs about 100 people) is relocated to Texas, the foundry will also move two of its six baghouses from the molding operation to its pipe operation, which is the primary source of toxic air emissions according to the Air District report. Baghouses are essentially giant vacuums designed to remove harmful materials emitted by the foundry before they disperse into the air outside the facility. Lowe said moving the baghouses from one part of the foundry to another is an example of how AB&I will try to reduce the community health risk from toxic emissions. 

Residents and environmental justice advocates say they appreciate that the Air District is now clearly acknowledging that AB&I poses a significant health risk to their communities. But they take issue with the timeline to address the problem, saying it will take too long and result in more deaths, illness, and repugnant odors in deep East Oakland.

“What is the point of having these agencies to regulate industries that pollute, if they can’t actually stop it when that pollution is causing cancer?” said Rupa Marya, associate professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco, and an East Oakland resident who lives a few miles from AB&I. 

Advocates say there should be an overhaul in permitting and air pollution monitoring

Esther Goolsby has lived in her house on 82nd Avenue since she was a teenager, and raised her three children there. Over the years, Goolsby said she watched as her neighbors got sick from diseases like asthma, stroke, and cancer. Goolsby already had asthma when she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which can reduce a person’s lifespan. Her children have also experienced health problems. Roughly 30 years ago, her youngest daughter developed health problems while attending school at the Acorn Woodland campus, including asthma and spontaneous nosebleeds on the playground. About eight or nine years ago, her middle daughter developed problems with her skin. 

Esther Goolsby has lived in her house on 82nd Avenue since she was a teen. Over the years, Goolsby said she watched as her neighbors got sick from diseases like asthma, stroke, and cancer. Credit: Amir Aziz

Esther Goolsby has lived in her house on 82nd Avenue since she was a teen. Over the years, Goolsby said she watched as her neighbors got sick from diseases like asthma, stroke, and cancer. Credit: Amir Aziz

“Nobody at the hospital could tell her what it was,” said Goolsby. “They just put her on steroids over months and months and then she needed to get off of it. She still has all the scars on her skin.” 

Goolsby and other activists say that there are flaws in the Air District’s permitting process that have allowed facilities like AB&I to keep polluting, and new industrial locations to open up in East Oakland. Currently, the agency evaluates the potential health risks of existing facilities and new facilities individually, and issues permits based solely on this isolated analysis. The Air District doesn’t take into account the cumulative impacts of having numerous industrial facilities emitting pollution in a small geographic area.

In interviews, Air District staff confirmed that they don’t use a cumulative method to determine whether to permit a new industrial facility from opening.

“That’s often the story of environmental justice, agencies are not very good at looking at cumulative risks of different facilities in the same neighborhoods and the health impacts,” said Sakaguchi, the researcher with Communities for a Better Environment. 

A related problem, according to researchers and people who live in Oakland’s most polluted neighborhoods, is that the Air District’s environmental monitoring methods don’t account for the ways that pollution can concentrate in specific areas, sometimes as small as a single block or street.

The largest source of air pollution in the Bay Area comes from tiny particles of material known as PM 2.5, which can be lofted into the skies by forms of combustion, like wildfires, wood burning, and diesel engines. These particles, measuring 2.5 microns in diameter—far less than the width of a human hair—can become lodged deep in people’s lungs and enter the bloodstream where they can cause numerous health problems. 

According to the Air District, eliminating human-generated PM 2.5 in the Bay Area could prevent about 2,500 deaths per year. To monitor PM 2.5 and other types of pollution in Oakland and ensure companies like AB&I are complying with environmental regulations, the Air District relies on three stationary sensors located in East Oakland near the airport, in West Oakland, and downtown near Laney College. The Air District declined to disclose their exact locations. Operated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the sensors take a measurement roughly once every hour.

The Oaklandside examined data from these sensors for the years 2016 through 2019. Over this four-year period, there were just five days in which the air in Oakland was “very unhealthy” and zero days when the air was deemed “hazardous”. The EPA’s definition of “very unhealthy” means the air is dangerous for everyone, even healthy adults without underlying health conditions like asthma. There were roughly 25 days where the EPA warned the air was “unhealthy for sensitive groups”, meaning that levels of PM 2.5 and other pollutants could affect residents with existing health problems like asthma or heart disease. 

The findings from the sensors would seem to indicate that air quality in Oakland is not a major factor contributing to health problems. But this is not the experience of people living in East and West Oakland, nor is it what some scientists say is happening in specific neighborhoods. 

“We all know that there are environmental justice issues with air pollution but we have not done a great job of visualizing them, nor have we even been able to say, even within the city, where those are,” said Veronica Southerland, a Ph.D. candidate in public health at George Washington University who studies air pollution.

Southerland said that a limitation of stationary air quality sensors is that they cannot capture disparities in air pollution levels within cities or within neighborhoods. 

There have been some attempts to collect data at a more granular level in Oakland. For example, in 2018, researchers from Kaiser Permanente and the University of Texas at Austin published a study that used air pollution data collected by Aclima, a private company that put sensors on Google Street View cars to capture numerous air samples block-by-block throughout East Oakland, West Oakland, and Downtown Oakland. This method ensured that the air quality measurements would be much more localized.

This team of researchers found that the levels of air pollution can range from five to eight times higher from one end of a single city block to the other, which suggests that levels of pollution can differ enormously even across small distances. They concluded that stationary air pollution sensors can’t comprehensively measure the air pollution many people in Oakland are exposed to each day.

“Those findings are significant, especially for children,” said Melissa Lunden, Aclima’s chief scientist. “If you can think about the exposure to what the child in that block or part of town is breathing at home or at school, they have a consistently high lifetime dose compared to a house a few blocks away.”

In March of this year, Southerland and a team of scientists used Aclima technology described in the 2018 study to look at the health impacts of air pollution levels in Oakland. The study showed that there are significant disparities in the level of death and disease from air pollution, both between the city of Oakland and the rest of Alameda County, as well as within Oakland neighborhoods. For example, death rates that can be attributed to levels of nitrogen dioxide, black carbon, and PM 2.5 pollution are 52%, 67%, and 57% higher in Oakland when compared to Alameda County as a whole. 

The study also showed what community members like Goolsby and the activists with Communities for a Better Environment already knew: the burden of death and disease from air pollution is highest in neighborhoods with a greater proportion of Black, Latino, Asian, indigenous, and immigrant residents. 

Children living in East Oakland are more exposed to pollution from traffic and industry

Because air quality monitoring in Oakland isn’t robust enough to examine how pollution concentrates in specific locations, and because regulators don’t consider the cumulative impacts of polluting facilities, it is difficult to link individual exposures to specific health outcomes. This is one reason why the precise sources of health problems affecting students, faculty, and families at Acorn Woodland Elementary are not well understood. But members of the school community believe that AB&I is one of several sources of contamination.

“I didn’t even connect the dots on those two until this whole pollution thing started, like ‘Oh, my students have asthma because the air quality here is horrible,” said Maira Lopez, a kindergarten teacher at the school. “The factories around there have definitely impacted our student’s health.” 

Teachers recently hosted a community forum for students, parents, and staff to talk about the environmental problems they’re facing. “I really hate the toxic stuff in our neighborhood, it’s sad,” said Emiliano Mora, a fourth-grader, during the event. Mora also read a poem, which included the following line: “I try not to breathe the toxic air, but it feels like plastic is everywhere.”

At a community meeting last month hosted by the Air District, its staff said that students attending Acorn Woodland and other nearby schools are at low risk for developing cancer from pollution from AB&I Foundry. The cancer risk was calculated at 6.6 per one million, according to the facility’s draft Health Risk Assessment, below the risk action level of 10 in one million.  

The school district’s recently completed report draws similar conclusions: Preliminary tests show that there are vapors in the air, including TCE, PCE, and benzene, all of which can cause cancer and other diseases, but the district’s consultants wrote that they are not present at levels that would create a health risk to students and staff. And no one has been able to pinpoint their source.

According to Lowe, AB&I’s general manager, any benzene emitted by the foundry is simply a byproduct of the burning process. He said the foundry isn’t responsible for any benzene discovered in the soil vapor at Acorn Woodland. “If we have a little benzene in the air, it’s not going to create soil vapor,” he said. “These are scientifically two different things. So the soil vapor with benzene has a different root cause than any benzene that we put into the air.” 

Sakaguchi said there has long been a pattern of different facilities blaming each other for the levels of pollution in Oakland. 

“Because there are so many different polluting facilities, it allows the facilities to point at each other to spread out the blame,” said Sakaguchi. “It is difficult when you find a molecule of benzene in the soil to say this facility produced this molecule of benzene. The responsibility gets muddled, basically.”  

Dilan Roe, chief of the land and water division at Alameda County Department of Environmental Health, told community members in a March 11 meeting that benzene levels in the air inside the school’s buildings and outdoors were detected at roughly the same levels. Roe said this is because benzene-contaminated air from outdoors also travels indoors where it might mix with benzene from soil vapor.

“What’s true about Oakland is there is more contamination than there should be in the ground. There is more contamination than there should be in the air,” said Roe during the community meeting. “Where we have a lot of contamination aligns with the areas where we have a lot of injustice, where we have racial, social, and economic injustice.”

Gangopadhyay and other teachers recently wrote a letter to the Oakland Unified School Board and Oakland City Council asking for more transparency about pollution on their campus. 

“We are horrified that children are being exposed to these toxic chemicals,” they wrote. “We can’t help but notice the disparity between the way this issue is being handled at our school, in contrast to how issues of this gravity are addressed in wealthier parts of Oakland.”

One question the teachers have is whether the contamination issue was known prior to 2002 when the campus was rebuilt to house Acorn Woodland, EnCompass Academy, and a preschool. 

Sakaguchi, the researcher at CBE, attempted to answer this question for the teachers. He filed a public records request with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control for environmental testing and construction records for the school. In January, the Department of Toxic Substances Control staff informed Sakaguchi that the records could not be located and are presumed missing. The Oaklandside reached out to the Department of Toxic Substances Control to ask about reporting procedures for the project at Acorn Woodland, but they did not respond prior to publication. 

Acorn Woodland teachers want the Oakland Unified School District and Oakland City Council not only to help them understand the sources of contamination at their school but to also investigate whether other schools in historically redlined neighborhoods are facing the same problem.

The overlap between redlining—government-sanctioned discrimination by the real estate and banking industries that helped create residential racial segregation—and pollution is well documented. In April 2021, the California EPA released the report “Pollution and Prejudice,” which illustrated the higher levels of pollution in redlined communities. Children and families in these communities carry the heaviest burden when it comes to exposure to air pollution and the respiratory illnesses that frequently accompany this exposure.

These findings are supported by a 2020 study in the medical journal The Lancet showing that communities throughout California, including in Oakland, which were historically redlined have higher rates of asthma hospitalizations among all age groups than communities that were not. 

The high levels of asthma in historically redlined areas can be traced back to the time when industry and roadways were built based on the policy. Heavily polluting industries were permitted to operate in historically redlined neighborhoods, including most of East Oakland’s flatland areas, and banned in other communities, like the Oakland hills. 

“It is an environmental racism issue. I feel like if we were in a different community, things would have happened already,” said Gangopadhyay.

Another major source of pollution harming East Oaklanders is nitrogen dioxide, which can cause asthma. Unlike the benzene in the air at Acorn Woodland, the source of nitrogen dioxide is well understood: it’s mostly due to car and truck traffic. In Oakland, the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air is highest along roadways the city designates as truck routes, such as I-880. 

Southerland’s 2021 analysis showed that exposure to nitrogen dioxide contributes to an estimated 334 new cases of childhood asthma each year in Oakland. Along truck routes, the air contains anywhere from one to 37 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide, high above the two parts per billion level that is shown to substantially impact a person’s health.

The Oaklandside used hospital visit data from the Alameda County Public Health Department to learn more about how asthma is impacting Oakland children. We examined the number of hospital visits for asthma within the 94621 zip code area that includes truck routes on city roadways and on the I-880 freeway, as well as the AB&I Foundry, thousands of homes, and the Acorn Woodland campus, for the years 2016 through 2019. Over that four-year period, there were about 2,700 hospital visits for asthma among children who live in the 94621 area. This same zip code also happens to be home to the highest percentage of children in Oakland at about 31% of all residents. 

Compared to other zip codes in Oakland, 94621 had the third-highest number of child hospital visits for asthma. The two zip codes with slightly higher hospital visit rates were 94612, which includes downtown Oakland and the residential part of West Oakland adjacent to the I-980, at roughly 34%, and 94607, which covers most of West Oakland, at about 31%. The zip codes with the lowest percent of hospital visits were 94611, which covers the affluent communities of Piedmont and Montclair, at about 4.5%, and the Rockridge area, 94618, at roughly 3%. 

Notably, residents of the 94621 zip code also had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection and deaths in Alameda County. The connection between air pollution and COVID-19 vulnerability is still being researched, but a study out of Harvard University suggests that there may be some overlap between exposure to PM 2.5 pollution and deaths from COVID-19.

Although exposure to nitrogen dioxide is most commonly associated with asthma, research dating as far back as 1993 shows that exposure to air pollution containing toxic chemicals and PM 2.5 pollution contributes to an early death overall.

“Even before the COVID outbreak, there was a fair bit of literature historically about increased risk for respiratory infections, like influenza infections and pneumonia, related to pollution exposure,” said Stephanie Holm, co-director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. “It certainly makes sense that we would see a similar pattern for COVID. The idea is that if you have ongoing air pollution, you have increased inflammation and irritation in your lungs.”

Marya, the UCSF physician who lives in East Oakland, cited existing research that shows systemic exposure to air pollution leads to increased inflammation in the body. 

“People who are forced to live with chronic air pollution are living in a chronically inflamed state, and then they get an added insult like wildfire smoke, their bodies are primed to have a severely inflammatory response,” said Marya. “I believe this is why the rates of COVID are higher and the COVID severity is higher in those neighborhoods in Alameda County that are most exposed to the toxic air pollution from companies like the AB&I Foundry.”

Activists say politics has stalled action on air pollution in Oakland 

Goolsby believes that polluting factories like AB&I are allowed to continue operating because of the relationships between local politicians, the Air District, and industrial businesses in Oakland. She cites Alameda County District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley as an example. Miley has represented the district where AB&I Foundry is based for 21 years. He has also been on the board of the Air District for the past 20 years, where he is currently vice-chair of the Community Equity Health and Justice Committee.

In 2020, Goolsby left her role as an East Oakland organizer for Communities for a Better Environment to run against Miley on an environmental justice platform. She pointed to Miley’s financial relationships with major polluters in East Oakland. Miley’s campaign committees have accepted more than $19,000 from AB&I Foundry between 2018-2020. His reelection committee also received $5,000 from Argent Materials, a recycler and seller of concrete, asphalt, gravel, and other aggregates, in 2020. Custom Alloy Scrap Sale Inc., a metal recycler, gave Miley’s campaign committee $17,000 from 2012 to last year. And California Metals Coalition Political Action Committee, which represents metal recyclers that cause air pollution, gave Miley $24,000 between 2009 and 2020, according to campaign finance reports. 

Miley is hardly the only local elected official to receive money from companies that pollute. AB&I Foundry gave $5,000 to Alameda County Supervisor David Haubert’s 2020 campaign. And businesses and individuals who identified themselves as AB&I employees have spent nearly $30,000 in the last decade supporting Oakland political campaigns, including $5,000 to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, roughly $7,000 to At-​Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, and $1,500 to Mayor Libby Schaff’s 2014 and 2018 campaigns. 

In 2015, AB&I Foundry was fined $100,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for laundering $23,900 in campaign contributions through 17 employees and their spouses to the campaigns of four Oakland mayoral candidates and two City Council candidates, according to the California FPPC. 

Companies like AB&I and Argent Materials, Aaron Metals, and Waste Management have co-sponsored events and programs over the years with local politicians to clean up litter in East and West Oakland. For example, Miley and other county and city leaders partnered with these companies on a pilot project two years ago to curb illegal dumping in East Oakland. The project resulted in the removal of 250 tons of trash, and the planting of 145 trees in the community, according to a 2020 report

Illegal dumping remains a persistent environmental justice challenge in East Oakland, but activists say projects like these are a form of “greenwashing,” whereby a polluter improves their image without addressing the harm they’re doing by emitting toxins into the environment. 

“It’s great when people are cleaning up illegal dumping, but the community has asked them before: You should clean up the mess that you’re making instead of cleaning up the mess that others are making,” said Angela Scott with Communities for a Better Environment. “You can help with illegal dumping after you’ve tackled the issue of dumping into our air.” 

Miley declined a request for an interview for this story, but during a community meeting hosted by AB&I on May 18, he called in to share his thoughts about the recent AB&I health risk assessment report. 

“I want to be a defender of AB&I,” said Miley on the call. “What they do is good. It’s a foundry, it does pipes, it does good things, it’s not like a plant that is providing noxious and poisonous things that affect people. They’ve been there for a long long time. It’s unfortunate this situation has occurred.”

Miley pledged to work with the company, regulators, and neighbors to “bring an appropriate resolution to this matter.”

Community members have been critical of Miley, AB&I, and other Air District representatives during other community meetings hosted by the Air District. Near the end of one meeting, Miley said that he agreed with the community members that five years is too long to wait for AB&I to implement changes and said he would see what he can do about the timeline. 

Lowe, the general manager of AB&I, said the foundry aims to implement the improvements requested by the Air District by spring 2023. But there’s no guarantee this will happen.

Marya said that she feels the Air District has been “derelict” in their duty as a public agency in how they’ve responded to the health and environmental risks created by AB&I and other polluters. “They are supposed to be working for us, and they’re not,” she said. 

Meanwhile, teachers at Acorn Woodland say their campaign for greater transparency from the city of Oakland has just started.  

“[Our students are] going into buildings that are toxic. And when they’re at home, maybe those places are also toxic. These are some of the most impacted students in so many ways already,” said Gangopadhyay, the fifth grade teacher. “The hope is that by engaging our community we have a broader audience, and people will start asking those questions of our City Council members or the mayor and put them in a position where they have to answer to families, and they have to answer to the community, and do something about it.” 


The Oaklandside obtained asthma-related hospital visits among children 17 years old and younger in Oakland between 2016 and 2019 by zipcode via a record request from the Alameda County Department of Public Health.

Data for the following zip codes were provided: 94601, 94602, 94603, 94605, 94606, 94607, 94608, 94609, 94610, 94611, 94612, 94613, 94618, 94619 and 94621.

ACPHD masks data with less than 10 values and combines the 94613 and 94605 zip codes because of the small amount of data available.

Child population data by zip code comes from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey five-year population estimates for sex by age (2015-2019). Estimates by zip code were downloaded from Census Reporter.

Air quality data comes from EPA’s daily outdoor air quality monitor. The Oaklandside analyzed data recorded by the three EPA monitors located in East Oakland, West Oakland, and near Laney College. The analysis was limited to ozone, particulate matter, and nitrous oxide based on research, reporting, and recommendations from the Bay Area Quality Management District.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 Data Fellowship. Special thanks to Aaron Williams and Danielle Fox who contributed to this reporting. 

[This article was originally published by The Oaklandside.]

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