Neighbors to Port: Change the trucking system, cut pollution

OAKLAND, Calif. — For over two years, Oakland’s port commissioners have been considering ways to drastically lower diesel pollution from the ships, trains and trucks moving goods in and out of the port, which ranks fourth in the nation in container traffic. port. Recognizing that trucks handling over 2 million containers there each year are major polluters, area residents and truck drivers are joining health and environmental activists in demanding the Port Commission quickly flesh out its goal to drastically cut diesel emissions by reorganizing the trucking industry as is being done by the Port of Los Angeles.

Dozens of West Oakland parents and children, truck drivers, environmental and health advocates took their campaign to the Port Commission’s doorstep Feb. 10 as they held a health education fair, free asthma screening and press conference in the plaza outside the commission’s office.

The event highlighted release of a new report pegging the cost of health, environmental and worker impacts of diesel pollution from trucks operating at the Port of Oakland at $153 million per year.

Emphasizing that Oakland residents understand the port’s pivotal role in the regional economy, City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan told the gathering, “We know that we deserve both a vibrant economy and a healthy environment. We know it’s possible, we know that other ports have begun to take the steps to achieve these goals.”

The new study by the Pacific Institute and the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, “Taking a Toll: The high cost of health, environment and worker impacts of the Oakland port trucking system,” sums up the monetary costs of premature deaths, asthma, increased cancer risk and other diseases stemming from the port-related pollution.

It recommends that the Port of Oakland quickly develop uniform and comprehensive standards for working conditions, environmental and neighborhood impacts, and require companies operating at the port to adhere to the standards by shifting port trucking to a concession model in which drivers are employees instead of independent contractors.

The importance of this shift was underscored by port truck driver Abdul Khan, who recounted the consequences of being, like most drivers, an “independent contractor.” Saying he is “scared” after a Natural Resource Defense Council researcher found “very high levels” of pollution in his truck cab, Khan told how he must foot all the expenses to buy and maintain his truck, doing without health insurance or other worker benefits. “By the time we clear expenses,” he said, “there’s hardly any money left for us. I clear about $5 an hour.” The only way things will get better, he said, is for the drivers to become employees instead of independent contractors, and for the trucking industry to invest in clean trucks that can meet new state air quality standards passed last year.

The plight of the port’s neighbors was highlighted by Alameda County Public Health Department deputy director Sandra Witt. “Residents of West Oakland live 10 years less than their counterparts in other parts of Oakland,” she said. The contribution of filthy air to this early death is unnecessary and preventable.”

Dr. Witt said the Health Department has found West Oakland residents have 2.3 times the hospitalization rates for asthma experienced by other Alameda County residents, and a lifetime cancer risk 2.5 times higher than other San Francisco Bay Area residents. “And 80 percent of this excess cancer risk is attributed to diesel,” she added.

Longtime West Oakland resident Athena Applon illustrated the human cost of those statistics as she told how 20 members of her family suffer from asthma — some so severely they must use breathing machines. “Remembering my childhood,” she said, “trucks were everywhere. Though now there are specified truck routes, you can still see trucks throughout the community. It seems to me there must be some connection between the poor air quality and the black soot that comes from heavy truck traffic, and the asthma rates.”

Report co-author Swati Prakash senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, said the new study doesn’t account for the additional health impacts from noise and safety hazards caused by port trucks that drive, park and use repair facilities in residential neighborhoods. “And,” she said, “the report doesn’t include the costs associated with port truck drivers not being employees. We found those costs begin at $4.5 million a year, the amount by which taxpayers underwrite the cost of health insurance for the nearly two thirds of drivers who lack health insurance.”

Prakash called on the port to “take advantage of its unique leadership position and help usher our region into a new modern era with a state of the art port trucking system that can demonstrate what a thriving, green, sustainable economy looks like.”