Battle Over Dirty Air Brewing in West Oakland

Moacir Santos, the owner of Santos Engineering, pushes open the entrance to his warehouse, which he says he made bigger to comply with a city inspector's recommendation. (Amel Ahmed/KQED)

The city of Oakland has filed an environmental justice lawsuit against debris-hauling company Santos Engineering for allegedly releasing harmful dust emissions into the surrounding neighborhood and contributing to heightened levels of diesel pollution.

The complaint, filed in late January, says the company’s operations are a public nuisance that pose a “grave and immediate threat to the health and safety of Oakland residents.”

City Attorney Barbara Parker wants a court to issue an injunction that would force the company to immediately suspend operations. The city is also seeking punitive damages on behalf of West Oakland residents, who say they their health has suffered since the company began operating last July.

Moacir Santos, the owner of the company, called the allegations baseless and accused the city of caving in to “rumors” aimed at discrediting his business.

“The neighbors want to shut down businesses like mine to make the area more residential,” he said.

A diesel excavator owned by Santos Engineering sits in his facility. (Amel Ahmed/ KQED)

The city’s lawsuit comes shortly after a federal civil rights complaint was filed last spring by a group of black residents who say the city has compromised their health with diesel emissions. The civil rights complaint accuses the city of engaging in a “pattern of neglect and systemic disregard” for the well-being of residents, ignoring input from West Oakland neighborhoods in favor of industry.

In response, two federal agencies announced last July that they were launching a formal investigation.

‘I Wake Up With My Eyes Swollen’

West Oakland residents like 71-year-old Barbara Lee complain of experiencing symptoms like difficulty breathing, severe allergies, lightheadness and severe coughing since Santos Engineering started operations.

“I wake up with my eyes swollen,” said Lee, who lives directly across the street from the warehouse with her two grandchildren.

Barbara Lee, 71, poses with her two grandchildren, Lawrence, 8, and Marley, 10. Lee said ever since Santos Engineering opened its operations in the neighborhood, her family has suffered from respiratory problems. (Amel Ahmed / KQED)

Shortly after the company opened, Lee says she began noticing coatings of dust on neighborhood cars and homes.

The dust got so bad, she said, that she had to send her grandchildren away to stay with relatives during the recent winter break.

“We let them get away so they can breathe and get fresh air,” Lee said.

A report issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said an inspector who visited the facility in September observed dust emissions and a large diesel excavator that was being used to load construction debris.

“No water was being used to control fugitive dust which was drifting out of the building,” the report said.

The complaint also alleges that the company uses a diesel excavator to pulverize construction material such as drywall, a known source of asbestos, and fiberglass, an irritant that can aggravate respiratory disorders such as asthma.

Santos denied storing any drywall and fiberglass in his facility.

The Oakland Fire Department conducted its own inspection in January and found the company to be in violation of the city’s fire regulations.

The city also accuses the company of allowing its trucks to drive along prohibited residential streets, contributing to heightened levels of diesel pollution in West Oakland.

But Santos said that he has been fully cooperative with the city and that he has made all the requested modifications to his facility following the citations he received from the fire department and BAAQMD.

During a recent tour of his facility, Santos pointed to some of these corrective measures, including adding overhead ventilation panels and installing a sprinkler system to wash away stray dust.

“After the inspector came here, I made all the changes they asked me to and emailed the inspector pictures as proof,” he said.

Far from being a bad neighbor, Santos said, he has even employed local homeless people to clean his trucks in an effort to promote positive community relations.

“I’ve been paying the homeless to wash my trucks to make the dust go down,” he said.  When asked where the dust came from, Santos blamed it on other “passing trucks.”

Santos said that at this point, he is not sure what more can be done to stop the neighbors from complaining.

“I need guidance from the city,” he said.

‘Environmental Injustice’

For City Attorney Parker, however, actions taken by Santos don’t go far enough.

“You can make some changes but it’s not fixing the bigger problem,” said Alex Katz, Parker’s chief of staff. “Neighbors to this day are still complaining about the dust.”

And in a neighborhood historically plagued by air pollution, the complaint says the community has suffered long enough.

As the country’s fifth largest container port, West Oakland is littered with rail and trucking facilities. The city has 90 times more diesel pollution per square mile on average than the rest of the state, according to a 2013 study by the nonprofit Pacific Institute.

People who live in West Oakland can expect to live nine years less than other Californians due to the poor air quality, according to a 2015 report.

Poor neighborhoods like West Oakland are often disproportionately exposed to toxic facilities, according to the  complaint.

Scholar Robert Bullard, widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement, called the accusations against Santos Engineering a “textbook case” of environmental injustice.

“This is the story of environmental racism and unequal protection. The fact that you have dust blowing across this vulnerable community, actions should be taken to immediately halt this operation,” said Bullard, a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University.

Studies have shown that hazardous industrial facilities tend to be located in communities of color.

One landmark study spanning 20 years found that more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities are people of color. Their proximity to hazardous sites exposes them to higher rates of air pollution than people in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“Generally, it takes more time and effort to get these industries to stop when it’s happening in a low-income or community of color than in a white affluent community in the suburbs,” Bullard said.

For his part, Santos said he has no problem with making additional modifications to his facility, including dealing with the alleged dust problem.

“If dust is the problem, I’ll resolve all this in 20 to 25,000 dollars. I can make this place perfect.” He added that city inspectors have never actually tested his facility for toxins.

But Katz said the city isn’t required to test the facility in order to file a public nuisance claim.

“This is a business that hauls construction debris from all over the Bay Area. And while no one has gone out and collected the dust to test it, if the neighbors are still complaining  . . .  our office considers this to be serious enough to ask the court to intervene.”

The city now waits to see if a judge agrees with them and issues an order to stop the company’s operations.

Battle Over Dirty Air Brewing in West Oakland 8 February,2018Amel Ahmed

  • Lucio Correia

    I am a resident of East Bay. I had no idea debris hauling companies even existed, much less what impact they have. Thank you for this in depth story.

  • California is home to one of the oldest truck fleets in the country, so it is not surprising that communities like West Oakland experience higher emissions from trucks. What is surprising is that policymakers in the state are doing very little to take action.

    Replacing these older vehicles and equipment with new clean diesel models is one of the most cost-effective strategies to reduce diesel emissions. New-technology clean diesel trucks and equipment like crushers and loaders reduce fine particle emissions by 95% relative to older generations of the technology.

    For some reason, policymakers in California seem intent on ignoring the significant emission reductions that can be achieved today with available technologies in favor of waiting for emerging technologies to be proven out in a lab.

    In the near future, California is set to receive $423 million to replace older heavy duty vehicles and equipment, just like those referenced, with new clean technologies. Hopefully, policy leaders in California will use this $423 million opportunity get new, clean equipment in service quickly so it can reduce emissions for communities in need. Why should communities like West Oakland wait when proven and available technologies like clean diesel is ready and available today?

    • solodoctor

      Thanks, Allen. But I must note that ‘clean diesel’ sounds like ‘clean coal.’ How can there be such a thing?!?

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