OAKLAND, Calif. — The Port of Oakland, the country’s fourth largest port, drives much of the San Francisco Bay Area’s economy, and the port’s container trade is expected to double in the next 20 years.

But a newly released report warns that this projected growth is threatened by the diesel pollution from trucks moving the containers, which causes soaring lung disease rates for nearby residents and port workers. At the same time, truck drivers endure dismal economic and working conditions.

The study, “Taking the Low Road: How independent contracting at the Port of Oakland endangers public health, truck drivers and economic growth,” shines a spotlight on the way corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot are forcing low-paid “independent contractor” drivers to bear the costs of truck maintenance. It analyzes four proposed solutions, and supports a “concession” system under which drivers would become employees of trucking firms and the costs of upgrading and maintaining trucks would be passed on to the giant shippers, benefiting port workers, small trucking firms and neighborhood residents.

The report, prepared by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), a member of the labor, health, environmental and community-based Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, was made public as the Port of Oakland prepared to release its own Truck Management Plan early this month.

At a Sept. 26 video press conference, Coalition Director Doug Bloch described the “sweatshop on wheels” conditions faced by some 1,500 truck drivers at the port, who typically work 11 to 14 hours a day, often wait for hours with no pay to get a dispatch and pick up a container, and can end up with as little as $8 an hour with no benefits. “While they are waiting, their engines are idling and toxic diesel smoke fills their lungs and wafts into the surrounding West Oakland community,” he said.

Longtime driver Yovani Hernandez, speaking by phone from the cab of his truck, underscored Bloch’s description. “I don’t want my kids to be doing this,” he said. “We make no money out of this. If we idle for three or four hours, we’re polluting the air and affecting the area,” he added. “So we’re trying to see if we can create a better system for us as drivers and also for the community.”

Dr. Tony Iton, Alameda County’s director of public health, emphasized the acute and chronic health crises faced by West Oakland residents whose rates of asthma, emphysema and heart disease are “substantially higher” than those in Oakland as a whole, or in the surrounding Alameda County. Iton noted that life expectancy of West Oakland residents is over a decade lower than that of residents of the more remote and affluent Oakland hills.

While poor trucking practices are not the only factor, he said, “The health of West Oakland residents is inextricably linked to the environmental and social policies of their largest industrial neighbor, the Port of Oakland.” He added, “These residents, who are predominantly African American, Latino, new immigrants and low-income, deserve the same opportunity to live in healthy environments as residents throughout the rest of Oakland and Alameda County.”

The EBASE study looked at four possible paths to cut diesel truck pollution: relying on the state of California to regulate and enforce air quality standards, use of public funds to subsidize upgrading the trucking fleet, relying on the shipping industry to regulate itself, and a “concession” system under which the port would contract with and set standards for trucking firms, which would then hire the drivers.

While the first three would provide some short-term improvements, the researchers said, all would leave in place the drivers’ “independent contractor” status, leaving them both responsible for truck maintenance and economically unable to fulfill that obligation.

They concluded that only the concession system, which the port now uses in every other industry to establish oversight, would allow it to set standards for any trucking company wanting to do business there, including employee status for drivers, clean trucks, off-street parking, and more access to trucking jobs for residents of areas affected by port operations.

mbechtel @pww.org