Oakland Officials Withhold Air Pollution Plan

Regulators for county, regional, and state agencies say the city and the developer of the Oakland Army Base have yet to reveal plans for how they will control toxic emissions.

The California Transportation Commission approved $176 million in funding last week for the redevelopment of the old Oakland Army Base — a potentially $1 billion project intended to reinvigorate the city and the nation’s fifth busiest seaport. Local hiring and contracting requirements also mean the port’s expansion will provide economic benefits for the residents of West Oakland. But those benefits will be accompanied by increased air pollution — an impact that city planning documents call “significant and unavoidable,” and one that the city, according to regulators, isn’t doing enough to prepare for.

The city has committed, to the extent possible, to mitigate air pollution from construction and expanded port activity. City officials also say they have a plan. But regulators at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Alameda County Public Health Department, and the California Air Resources Board, say they have yet to see specifics.

“We may agree 100 percent with them,” said Dave Vintze, planning manager for the air district, referring to the city’s plan. “But they’re not giving us the details on what they’re planning on doing out there. … They’ve been less than cooperative about it.”

Trucks, trains, and ships at the Port of Oakland spew a range of pollutants, including diesel particulate matter, a sooty substance that is associated with higher-than-average rates of asthma and cancer among West Oakland residents. Since 2008, the port has made progress toward reducing particulate-matter emissions and expects an 85 percent reduction by 2020. But Vintze is worried that expanded port activity may counteract those efforts.

“We don’t know exactly what the impacts are going to be,” Vintze said. “But if they develop the way they’re talking about, it will bring a lot more trucks and a lot more trains. And that’s going to increase the air pollution burden.”

According to a 2002 Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the Army Base redevelopment, the city promised to implement a “criteria pollutant reduction program” and a “truck diesel emission reduction program.” But last year the city transferred responsibility for these mitigations to the developer. They’re codified in a 2012 Standard Conditions of Approval document, which enumerates more than six hundred tasks the developer must complete, including those spelled out in a “Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program” approved by the Oakland City Council.

However, this program lacks the specificity regulators seek. They want benchmarks for controlling air pollution — along with mechanisms to reassess mitigation if those goals aren’t met. They also want a commitment to using the best strategies available. “We believe that the Oakland Army Base represents an opportunity to be a leader in green technology,” said Cynthia Marvin, a high-ranking planning official at the Air Resources Board.

Marvin said the city could go beyond following existing regulations, and instead take “a leap forward towards zero-emissions technology.” For example, Marvin said the city could start to provide infrastructure for the eventual electrification of trucks, ships, and cranes — a measure currently underway at the Port of Long Beach. Other options include using innovative green infrastructure, such as vegetative barriers made of bamboo to trap diesel particulate matter — one of the solutions proposed by Brent Bucknum, an environmental engineer in Oakland who has received a $240,000 state grant to design model green infrastructure for the redevelopment. “The city continually says there are going to be significant impacts, and there’s nothing we can do about it — that’s what we’re arguing: There is something they can do about it,” Bucknum said.

Implementing such strategies, however, could be difficult at this stage because the city and project developer, Prologis and California Capital and Investment Group, have already agreed to the Army Base redevelopment plan. “The master plan is finished,” said Robert Selna, communications manager at ROJE Consulting, which is part of the development team. “The bottom line is that the project has complied with [California environmental regulations] and will fulfill 660 Standard Conditions of Approval and a Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program, which includes many environmental mitigations,” he added in an email.

Whether or not the city takes advantage of new green technologies, regulators are insistent that it be more forthcoming. On March 20, representatives from county, state, and federal agencies joined city officials and representatives from the project developer for a meeting at air district headquarters in San Francisco. “The essence of what [the agencies] said was, ‘We want to see you build the greenest, most innovative project you can possibly build,'” said Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, who also attended the meeting. “‘And if you’re willing to work with us, we have money and expertise and resources to help you do it.’ The city basically dodged it and said, ‘We’ve already made an agreement on what we’re going to do.'”

Vintze confirmed Beveridge’s summation of the meeting. Doug Cole, the Oakland planning official overseeing the base redevelopment, did not respond to a request for comment.

So far there are no plans for a follow-up to the March 20 meeting. Remedies available if the city does not meet the terms of its EIR include legal action. But regulators emphasized that they don’t want the process to be adversarial. They would simply like Oakland to be transparent about its plans, and to include local agencies in those discussions.

“They think they’ll do it when the time is right,” said Vintze. “They think they have more time. We think they should do it now.”

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