OAKLAND, Calif. — Truck pollution, now contributing to soaring rates of asthma, cancer and heart disease in the West Oakland community, may be heading downward under a new plan announced by Port of Oakland officials here. At an Oct. 6 town hall meeting in the community, which borders the port, officials unveiled a preliminary proposal to cut back on pollution emitted by trucks serving the port.

It is part of an overall program being developed by a task force of business, labor, environmental, health and community representatives to reduce air pollution at the port, which is expected to be finalized in the coming months.

The draft Clean Truck Program calls for shifting to a “concession” model, under which the port would set requirements for trucking services, including a shift over time to clean-emission trucks. A majority of drivers would transition from their present status as “independent owner operators,” becoming employees of trucking companies.

Supporters say this would shift the responsibility to buy and maintain trucks from the drivers, many of whom average about $30,000 a year with no benefits, to the trucking industry and to shippers, who can better afford the cost. They say the drivers would gain benefits and better working conditions.

The port already uses such a system for many other functions including shuttle buses, taxis and food vendors.

Last summer, 1,250 of the 1,500 drivers working at the port signed a petition saying they wanted to shift to employee status.

Brian Beveridge of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project told the town hall meeting audience that previously neither the city of Oakland nor the port had concerned itself with the transport of goods, leaving the issue “in a vacuum.” He commended the port for its leadership in bringing together the various groups concerned with port operations.

Port official Ray King said in presenting the draft, “We’re trying to look at a very complex system, and develop a comprehensive solution that benefits all the players in that system.” He added, “Our goal is to help truckers become more competitive, to recognize that there are negative impacts in the community that we need to address, and fundamentally to improve the competitiveness of the Port of Oakland.”

The agenda consisted largely of presentations by port officials. Other speakers represented the city council district, trucking firms, the California Air Resources Board and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. One West Oakland resident was a panelist. No public comment period was scheduled.

As the meeting progressed, several audience members — trade unionists, port truck drivers and neighborhood residents — insisted that the agenda be opened to their concerns.

Responding to a trucking firm representative’s remarks extolling independent operator status as a path to “the American dream,” Teamster union leader Chuck Mack called it “a nightmare” for many drivers, who lack health care, sick days or vacations. Expressing appreciation to the port for the discussion process, Mack emphasized that the community’s urgent environmental concerns can’t be addressed effectively without changing the system, starting with the drivers.

During breaks and after the meeting, participants expressed guarded optimism over the port’s proposal. Commenting on a provision in the draft that as many as 30 to 40 percent of drivers might remain owner-operators, Kulwinder, a port truck driver for three years, said many drivers he knows will quit if employee status is not approved. Drivers preferring independent status are likely to be relatives of trucking company owners, he said.

The proposal “is a good starting point and there’s lots of work to be done,” said Trinette Grant, a former port driver now working for a union trucking firm. She emphasized the importance of reducing to a minimum the trucks’ current long periods of idling in line.

“The devil is in the details,” said Doug Bloch of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, adding, “I’m cautiously optimistic about what we saw today.” Bloch said more input from drivers and the West Oakland community is needed at future meetings. “The port is showing leadership,” he said. “It needs to hear from the community with support for its efforts.”

mbechtel @pww.org