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Attorney General: Oakland port plan would pollute air, shorten life spans

OAKLAND — California’s top prosecutor has joined the legal fight against a port project that environmentalists say would worsen West Oakland’s already harmful air pollution.

Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a petition with the court last week against Port of Oakland officials and a materials company, Eagle Rock Aggregates, which plans to build a plant on 18 acres of port land that would store large amounts of sand and gravel in the open air.

The plant is “less than a mile away and upwind from West Oakland, a community that has for decades experienced disproportionate pollution impacts and related adverse health outcomes from various sources, including from Respondents’ operations,” Bonta’s petition states.

The company received approval from the Port of Oakland Board of Commissioners earlier this year, but both were promptly sued by a local environmentalist group over concerns the plant would leave West Oakland residents vulnerable to breathing dust and sand particles that blow in the wind.

The attorney general’s petition is the latest sign that California regulators are taking a harder look at industries such as shipping, construction and oil to make sure projects take into account research that shows how air pollution directly poses health hazards and premature deaths.

West Oakland is surrounded by the port, freeways, rail and other industries, and diesel particulates, auto emissions and other toxic hazards that pose a significant health risk for residents. Emergency room visits or hospitalizations for asthma are two times higher there than the rest of Alameda County, according to county health officials.

Bonta called on port officials to revise their plans so those harms are curbed, saying in a statement the terminal “will only add to (residents’) pollution burden, resulting in shorter life spans, more trips to the emergency room, and chronic illness.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 16: View of the Port of Oakland and downtown Oakland from San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Eagle Rock did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Port of Oakland also declined to comment on the lawsuits, saying only in a statement that port officials “welcome further discussions” on the topic with the attorney general’s office.

Port officials earlier this year defended the project, noting that electric trucks and conveyor belts would be used to transport the materials, a wash station would be installed and recycled water used to reduce dust, though they acknowledged that they could not mitigate all impacts.

“It would not be possible to meet the Port goals and operate the proposed project while also avoiding all significant impacts,” port staff wrote in a memo after describing the positive impact on jobs and revenue.

Other regional agencies — the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission — have previously questioned the project in public, urging the port to do more to reduce the plant’s impacts.

But the state’s involvement will now formally lend the local advocacy group, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, more power to challenge Eagle Rock Aggregates’ environmental review.

It’s about time, said the group’s executive director, Margaret Gordon. The group has been calling on regulatory agencies for over three decades to give West Oakland’s air quality a closer look.

Gordon says there’s systemic failure in the city to address the neighborhood’s environmental woes, mainly because the board lacks representatives who are sensitive to the health issues that affect West Oakland residents.

“If that (selection) process doesn’t include people who understand the health of West Oakland, then based on this business model on the Port of Oakland, that makes a difference for why this geographic community is so connected to air pollution,” Gordon said.

The port has traditionally prioritized container shipments of goods over those of raw materials. But Eagle Rock promised to operate at a large scale, receiving 2.5 million tons of construction materials on 48 ocean-going vessels a year.

The plan is expected to generate between $43 million and $60 million in profits over a 12-year lease, and port commissioners will have options down the line to extend it for 15 more years.

Gordon, a West Oakland native, said she has spent her whole life watching her community suffer from nearby environmental harms, including “what’s coming out the pipes, the ships, trains, trucks, cargo-handling equipment and the three freeways” surrounding the neighborhood.

“We have pushed the powers that be, the institutions at the port, to start being held accountable for what’s coming off their sites,” she said.

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