Shortly after Dr. Rupa Marya moved into the hills above East Oakland in 2017, she began smelling the acrid odors that often befouled her neighborhood’s air. Then, starting last September, the professor of medicine noticed those odors getting worse. So she followed her nose and concluded that the culprit was a foundry on San Leandro Street near the RingCentral Coliseum.
Early this year, Dr. Marya started reporting the odors to a complaint line operated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Through the website Nextdoor.com, she soon identified other people who were doing the same. Several of those neighbors described the smells to the air district as resembling “burnt rubber” or “burnt asphalt.”
The AB&I Foundry at San Leandro Street and 78th Avenue in East Oakland has been in business for 113 years, since long before housing grew up around it. Formerly known as American Brass and Iron — today it no longer processes brass — AB&I manufactures cast iron products such as pipes and fittings, and recycles scrap metal, including guns confiscated by police departments. With more than 200 employees, the foundry is the largest employer in East Oakland.
Neighboring residents complain of strong foul odors from the foundry and describe common symptoms including headaches and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Foundry neighbors believe AB&I is a major factor in the community’s high rate of serious health problems, pointing to the neighborhood’s high rates of asthma, heart disease, and respiratory problems.
Communities for a Better Environment has been campaigning for years for the air district to take stronger action specifically against AB&I. Esther Goolsby of Communities for a Better Environment, who has lived three blocks from AB&I for 27 years, has asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. When her three children were growing up, they had asthma, nosebleeds, and headaches that restricted their ability to participate in sports and other activities. “The odors are bad,” Goolsby said. “But they’re also holding toxics and pollutants.”
Angela Scott, Goolsby’s colleague at Communities for a Better Environment, said her sister, who lived close to the foundry and died last year at age 41, had heart disease and frequent headaches.
Stories like these are common in the neighborhood, where “life expectancy is ten years less than in North Berkeley,” Dr. Marya said. Data from the Alameda County Health Department show an average life expectancy of 72.7 in East Oakland and 82.7 in the Berkeley hills.
“As a physician, I’m very concerned with air pollution,” Dr. Marya said. “We know now that air pollution is a major killer, one of the top causes of death in industrialized countries.”
Scott acknowledges that pollution in East Oakland comes from the “cumulative impacts” of many sources — including industry, Interstate 880, the Port of Oakland, and Oakland International Airport. “We live in a sacrifice zone,” Scott said.
Yet even among those other pollution sources, AB&I stands out. The California Air Resource Board named the foundry Alameda County’s second largest emitter of toxic air pollution in 2017. Communities for a Better Environment has done its own air monitoring, conducted “toxic tours” of East Oakland featuring AB&I, and held countless meetings between neighborhood residents and officials from the city and the air district.
AB&I gave a boost to Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley’s Illegal Dumping Pilot Program when it featured the program at its annual open house August 17. But some East Oakland residents saw the event as part of an AB&I charm offensive to divert attention from the foul odors and toxic pollution that they believe are sickening, and even killing, neighborhood residents.
Through the illegal dumping program, AB&I has joined with city and county departments, other businesses, and community organizations to clean up streets, plant trees, restore habitat, and generally “address illegal dumping and beautification,” said spokesperson Zeydi Gutierrez. But Goolsby noted the irony that “the people that are polluting our air are cleaning up our streets.”
AB&I operates with a permit from the air district. It reports its emissions each time the permit is renewed, said Greg Nudd, the district’s deputy air pollution control officer, and district staff validates the reports. Generally, the emissions from AB&I are within acceptable legal limits. Consequently, community residents say they have lost faith in the air district’s ability to protect them.
The foundry’s passing grades show that the air district’s requirements aren’t strict enough, said Dan Sakaguchi, researcher for Communities for a Better Environment. “Meeting them doesn’t actually protect community health,” Sakaguchi said.
Nudd said the air district is in the process of tightening its requirements. “A couple of years ago the Bay Area Air District passed the most stringent air toxics rule in California,” he said. The new rule requires polluters to meet stricter health standards and commits the district to conduct health risk assessments to see if they are met. Nudd said AB&I is now doing new testing under this program, and the air district will validate the results, which he expects in the next couple of months.
In the early 1990s, AB&I adopted a number of air-pollution-control practices in settlement of a lawsuit brought by People United for a Better Life in Oakland. In response to the settlement, Gutierrez said her company installed a “baghouse system” and an “enclosed dust transport and storage system.” Since then, she added, the foundry has upgraded these systems and added “improvements to the roofing, ductwork and vents, additional fume, dust, and particulate collection, and the use of low-to-no-emissions coating processes.”
Yet if, despite those measures, the air district’s Health Risk Assessment shows that the foundry does not meet the agency’s new air pollution standards, Nudd said the district can require AB&I to install more pollution-control measures.
Investigations of pollution at AB&I have already generated a lot of data. Communities for a Better Environment led a community air-monitoring effort in 2014, which identified a number of toxic pollutants near the foundry. In 2017, the air district, together with the state Air Resources Board and researchers at UC Davis, conducted another study, but the results, released in 2018, were inconclusive. Nudd said the monitoring method did not capture the relevant information about AB&I emissions.
After that, the air board continued its efforts to investigate AB&I. It hired Eastern Research Group to conduct more tests, visited the foundry several times, and met with foundry managers last November. According to an affidavit filed in Alameda County Superior Court by Kristen McKinley of the Air Board, inspectors identified odors of “burned resin (organic compound emissions), hot metal, asphalt, burned brake, and pungent odors, possibly aldehydes.” Because Air Board staff felt more tests in specific areas of the operation were needed, in April McKinley began negotiating with the foundry to allow inspectors into the facility again.
McKinley’s affidavit, filed July 3, describes a three-month negotiation with AB&I, which continued to raise questions about the planned investigation. The Air Board asked for and received a warrant from the court requiring the foundry to allow the inspection. Later that month, the Air Board went back to court saying it no longer needed the warrant because it had worked things out with AB&I. The inspections took place July 10 through 16. Results are not yet available.
This “drawn-out process” of data collection is partly because the technical challenges of identifying the exact source of such pollution are quite difficult, said Sakaguchi of Communities for a Better Environment. But he and some East Oakland residents suspect that it also “shows that air regulators just don’t take the complaints and the public health of East Oaklanders seriously.”
Dr. Marya was a bit more blunt: “This is environmental racism,” she said. “There’s already data enough to show what’s happening in East Oakland.”
She called the air district’s complaint process a farce. “I call and they send someone three to five hours later, after the wind has shifted,” Dr. Marya said. “The inspector comes to the house and stands next me and sniffs. If he can’t smell it, it’s not a verified complaint. I’m a scientist. We have so many tools to detect pollution. It’s a slap in the face.”
Dr. Marya said neighbors recently conducted a crowdfunding campaign that raised $5,000 to buy their own “sophisticated, portable air monitor.” They will use it in a community air monitoring project, she said, involving thirty people including scientists from UC Berkeley and legal experts, all coordinated by Goolsby and Communities for a Better Environment. “The odors are a real problem too,” Dr. Marya said. “Why should we have to smell that shit? Do we need data to prove it’s a public nuisance? No! It’s all over Nextdoor.”
Tracy Lee, of the air district’s complaints division, said an agency staff member goes as soon as possible to meet with the complainant and observe the odor together. “We take complaints very seriously,” Lee said. The complaint is recorded whether the inspector smells the odor or not, and the air district then investigates to try to pinpoint the source. “We try to establish if it’s a public nuisance — the state health and safety code has a very specific definition of public nuisance — and if the operation is in compliance with its permits.”
Scott, of Communities for a Better Environment, was skeptical. “This is not a system I see really working. They tell us to report problems, but nothing happens after that. When folks call, they get the same results as when they don’t call.” In response to such criticisms, the air district is about to start updating its complaint process, Lee said, and is planning a series of workshops to get public input.
In addition to its specific regulation of AB&I, the air district has recently started working with Communities for a Better Environment and other organizations to create a work plan for reducing pollution in East Oakland, under the provisions of a new state law that requires action to cut pollution in the most-impacted communities.
Scott commented that this process could be helpful if it brings more focus to the issue, or it might just result in “another picture book with data. I reserve my excitement for when things happen.”
Whatever the new data shows, Dr. Marya said that she wants AB&I out of the community. “We don’t need polluters like that around our children,” she said. “Black and brown lives matter.”
Communities for a Better Environment has talked with several city departments about legal tools that the city could use to force AB&I out of East Oakland. Ernesto Arevalo, the northern program director of Communities for a Better Environment, said one possible strategy would be to rezone the neighborhood so that the foundry would no longer be a permitted use, then give AB&I a certain number of years to amortize its investment. Or the Oakland Neighborhood Law Corps, part of the city attorney’s office, could prosecute the refinery as a public nuisance, as it has done with other polluters. But so far none of this is in the works.
AB&I’s most powerful argument, however, is that it provides good, union jobs to more than 200 people. Gutierrez said AB&I “has an ongoing commitment to being a good neighbor and finding ways to give back to the community,” which is home to some of its employees. AB&I contributes to the Alameda County Community Food Bank and local schools, works with community organizations, and in the last couple of years has convened a Community Advisory Panel.
Communities for a Better Environment says it, too, is concerned about jobs for community members, but that residents want jobs that don’t harm their health. Along with other community organizations, Communities for a Better Environment joined the city in the year-long East Oakland Neighborhoods initiative, which created detailed plans for a “just, healthy, resilient, and prosperous neighborhood.”
The plan includes dozens of local economic development projects that would provide jobs and business-development opportunities as well as environmental, health, and social benefits. Now that the plan is completed, the city is preparing to apply for millions in state and federal funding for implementation.
East Oakland residents are hoping that these green economic development projects can build a future where they don’t have to trade their health for jobs, said Scott. “We live a decade less than people in the hills because of the things that are allowed to happen in our community.”