West Oakland Neighbors Tackle Toxic Legacy


Editor’s Note: This was a multi-party contribution involving Kim Komenich (photos) Kwan Booth (text) NewsDesk.org (editing) Spot.Us (financial support). This is part of a series that we’ll be posting over the next week.

Just about any long-term West Oakland resident can rattle off a list of health issues effecting their community: toxins from cargo ships docking at the nearby Port of Oakland, diesel smoke from Port-bound trucks, pollution from the two freeways that border the neighborhood, illegal dumping, and lack of accessible health care.

In fact, research funded by the Pacific Institute found that some of the area’s 403 toxic hot spots date back to post-World War II construction — and that nearly 82 percent of West Oakland residents live near one of these potentially contaminated sites.

A 2008 study by the California Air Resources Board indicates that West Oaklanders are exposed to diesel toxins at almost three times the levels of the rest of the city. As a result, children living in the 94607 zip code are seven times more likely than other California youth to be hospitalized for asthma and related issues.

“We’re still talking years”

Incremental changes have been made on both state and local levels, including the port’s current Comprehensive Truck Management Plan — yet many locals feel that significant improvements are still a long way off.

“There’s a lot of talk. People talk about how ‘this needs to be done, we’re going to do this’” said Shirley Burnell, a community activist and co-director of West Oakland Acorn, “but still things are being pushed out. Instead of doing something today or tomorrow or next week we’re still talking years.”

Disraeli Hives, 41, was born and raised in West Oakland, and has seen effects of poor air quality on three generations of her family. Both she and her mother have been diagnosed with asthma, as have 8 of her 10 children. The family is on a regular rotation of inhalers and respiratory pumps, and Ms. Hives only recently started breathing without the use of an oxygen tank.

Hives said that almost two-thirds of the children on her block have some form of respiratory illness, but that getting regular care has been an uphill battle, as many of her neighbors are dependent on public transportation.

“A lot of kids down here got asthma and their parents can’t afford to afford to buy a new car, or a used car for that matter,” Hives said, “so they’re on foot or catching buses and you know how long you got to sit at the AC Transit.”

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