Red Star’s Rising Opposition

Plant Critics hope to galvanize West Oakland with report on city's second-worst polluter.

Neighborhood activists have long complained about the foul odors and round-the-clock noises that waft from the century-old Red Star Yeast factory in the shadow of the West Oakland BART station. Locals attribute the area’s high incidence of asthma, cancers, and other health problems to pollution from the plant, but they’ve lacked sufficient data to prove their claims. Now, a new study from an Oakland research organization validates some of the neighbors’ worries and adds fuel to the longstanding effort to get Red Star out of the area.

Two years ago, the beleaguered neighborhood around the factory was identified by BART and the city’s Housing Authority as the proposed site for a $400 million, mixed-use “transit village” that would combine retail storefronts with more than seven hundred residential units. Since then, politicians and activists have begun standing with the neighbors who hope to evict Red Star from its Fifth Street address, which is right across the street from a proposed multi-story parking lot for the transit village.

Nancy Nadel, who represents West Oakland on the city council, is determined to escort Red Star out of her district. Nadel believes the main focus of opposition should be the facility’s air-quality permit, which must be renewed every five years and expires this June. The month-long public comment period preceding the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s forthcoming decision on renewal will include a public hearing. And although the air district isn’t supposed to be influenced by political pressure when deciding whether or not to reissue a title 5 permit, Nadel says it often is. Nadel said it is possible to use neighborhood pressure to convince the air board not to renew a permit, pointing to the eviction of the High Street medical waste incinerator in East Oakland this past December as proof that it can be done.

Meanwhile, Liam Garland, one of Oakland’s five new “Law Corps” attorneys — lawyers in the city attorney’s office who are assigned to work on neighborhood issues — is currently investigating allegations about Red Star. City officials will not say if he is building a case against the company, but they acknowledge that he takes that option seriously.

Although neighbors have quietly resented the plant for years, critics hope the publication of a report by Oakland’s Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security Opposition will give rise to a more effective opposition movement. The so-called West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project compiled data from state and federal agencies in an effort to give locals ammunition in their fight against their longtime neighbor. Its report shows that West Oakland children are seven times more likely than other California kids to be hospitalized for asthma, although Red Star is not the only suspected source of hazardous emissions.

The pollutant that makes the yeast factory such a controversial neighbor is acetaldehyde, which is produced when sugar is metabolized by yeast during fermentation. Acetaldehyde is on the state of California’s list of “known carcinogens.” The Environmental Protection Agency is more guarded, describing the chemical as a “potential developmental toxin” and a “probable human carcinogen.” In any case, studies have shown that acetaldehyde causes tumors in animals and that chronic exposure causes inflammation of the nasal cavity, larynx, trachea, and bronchi of animals. “That sounds a lot like asthma,” noted Meena Palaniappan, engineer and project director at the Pacific Institute. And asthma is a major problem in the West Oakland neighborhood around Red Star.

The West Oakland Asthma Coalition plans to do an epidemiological study of childhood asthma in West Oakland focusing on, among other things, the density of incidence near the Red Star plant. The Coalition is just now applying for grants and hopes to launch the study within a year. Coalition member Dr. Washington Burns, a partner in the formation of a new asthma clinic in the neighborhood, would like to study the relationship between proximity to the plant and incidence of asthma, as well as asthma attacks and periods of high plant emissions.

Burns, a retired physician and director of the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement in West Oakland, notes that links to industry or local diesel exhaust can’t be proven since the epidemiological data hasn’t been studied. In addition to the yeast factory, about ten thousand diesel trucks pass through West Oakland every day on their way to and from the Port, adding acetaldehyde and other known asthma-aggravating pollutants to the air. No one contests that multiple sources of carcinogens affecting a single site will multiply the health impacts.

Such cumulative effects are not taken into account when emissions permits are issued for industries like Red Star, said Will Taylor, air district information officer. “That wouldn’t be fair to the businesses,” Taylor said. “How would you decide which one should reduce its emissions?”

Nonetheless, data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory makes it clear that Oakland’s two worst air polluters are both yeast manufacturers. Topping the list is Fleischmann’s Yeast on 98th Avenue in East Oakland. Red Star comes in second.

“Red Star has been here forever, and neighbors have been complaining forever,” said Monsa Nitoto, executive director of the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, a neighborhood organization dedicated to improving living conditions for Oakland’s poorest community. “It is environmental racism,” says Nitoto. “The people who live in this neighborhood are poor African Americans and Latinos. There’s a reason you’d never find this kind of plant in Piedmont.”

In fact, the plant has been located in West Oakland since long before the area became a primarily minority neighborhood. The Red Star Yeast plant dates back to the last decade of the nineteenth century and the neighborhood has long been home to both industry and residences. The plant has been used to manufacture yeast since it was built, although Red Star has only operated the plant since just before World War II.

Red Star plant manager Michael Cunningham says he understands the concerns of the people who live near the factory. He acknowledges the awkward fit between his industry and residential life, but denies that the incompatibility is Red Star’s fault. “The plant has been here making yeast for more than a hundred years,” he said. “It’s not as though we forced our way into a residential community. Limits are set by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and we operate within those limits.”

Councilwoman Nadel has concerns about how those limits are set and enforced. “Red Star played a key role in writing the same regulations that control the terms of their operation in Oakland,” she said. “Compliance is self-regulated, too.”

Red Star submits quarterly reports to the air district, and it is only from those reports that the EPA tracks how many tons of carcinogens they’re pumping into the air. If Red Star engineers have an accident and release more than the company’s allotment of carcinogens, for instance, they must report that themselves, too.

Nancy Nadel believes that whether or not Red Star complies with air district limits is not really the point. “The plant, which would never be allowed in this neighborhood if it hadn’t been grand-fathered in, is emitting more than thirty thousand pounds of a known carcinogen every year. That may be legal, but it certainly isn’t healthy.” Before Nadel was elected to the council in 1997, she worked as an environmental engineer for the EPA in San Francisco. She would commute to San Francisco by BART and would park her car in the lot across from Red Star. “On bad days I’d have to run to the station, it smelled so bad,” she says. “They are pumping a lot of carcinogens into the air and they aren’t willing to do anything about it. … The development of the transit village just isn’t feasible in West Oakland with Red Star here. It’s a barrier to redevelopment that could bring higher paying and better jobs to West Oakland.”

Michael Cunningham questions the justice of politicizing his plant’s presence in the neighborhood. “There are mixed industrial and residential neighborhoods all over Oakland,” he said. “Who’s to say that this neighborhood shouldn’t be developed in a different direction? Maybe it should move away from residential toward industry. Maybe it could be an industrial park.”

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who has not joined the effort to oust the plant, is skeptical about the chances of securing funding for the West Oakland transit village in these days of red budgets. And he is not enthusiastic about chasing Red Star out of town. “This is an industrial neighborhood,” he says, “and there are people living off these industries as well as people dying from them.”

Cunningham made a similar point when he noted that “several” of his plant’s thirty-six employees have Oakland addresses, although he declined to be more specific than that. Nitoto, who has lived in West Oakland for more than forty years and said he canvassed most of the homes around Red Star, doesn’t believe a single one of Red Star’s employees lives in the plant’s vicinity.

Asked by a reporter if he would move his own family into the neighborhood, Cunningham looked down, rubbed his hands together slowly, and was silent.

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