Look For The Helpers – Part 2

Published Jan 23, 2024

In the second part of this special Clean Transportation mini-series Jess visits the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to talk with co-founder and co-director Ms. Margaret Gordon about local health and environmental impacts of - and solutions to - living next to one of the nation's busiest shipping ports.


It’s time for Part 2 of our Clean Transportation month series, and today we’re shifting to the “why” behind the work of electrifying heavy duty trucks. Pollution from trucks makes people sick, and it’s critical to learn from the leaders working to stop the harm and break the trucking industry’s dependency on fossil fuels.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science.

Jess: I'm delighted to join co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Ms. Margaret Gordon, here in their offices in West Oakland, California. Ms. Margaret was one of the founders of the organization and has dedicated her life to working for just, equitable, and community-led solutions to the environmental and health issues that affect West Oakland so deeply. In addition, she was appointed by the mayor to the Oakland Port Commission and served for five years in that capacity, as well as on various EPA and state planning committees. Now, the Port of Oakland is the fifth busiest port in the United States. It's central to the shipping of goods throughout California and the western U.S. Moving those goods requires a lot of heavy-duty trucks, which are notorious for polluting the air, creating noise and traffic, and directly harming communities that have had truck routes carved right through their centers. Ms. Margaret, thank you so much for speaking with me today, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about West Oakland.

Margaret Gordon: Thank you for having me. I appreciate this. I think that the word that's not being said here is the cumulative impact of having multiple transportation modes that impact West Oakland based on the Port of Oakland. There's the trucks, there are the trains, there's the ships and the cargo handling equipment that still are using fossil fuels. So even though the Port of Oakland, half of the docks, I think now are electrified, that plug in. But the trains, the trucks, and the cargo handling equipment has been slowly removed for zero emission but it's so slow it's almost like a snail crawl. It's just a little bit of there's a little bit here and a little bit there and so it's not a real master plan and that's what we've been fighting for the port for years, to come up with a master plan of how they are going to move fossil fuels out, as part of the energy that they need to move the goods.

Jess: I asked Sam Wilson, Senior Vehicles Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists, to give us a quick overview of West Oakland and its role as a shipping hub.

Sam: West Oakland is a 7 square mile mixed-use community with around 25,000 residents and home to over 30 schools and daycares. The community experiences one of the highest air pollution burdens in California, largely due to it being flanked on all sides by interstates and the Port of Oakland to the south, which hosts thousands of semi-trucks carrying shipping containers as well as large cargo ships, freight trains, and cargo equipment burning diesel fuel. Air pollution from these vehicles is a primary reason for significantly higher rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and strokes as well as lower life expectancy in West Oakland compared to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Jess: Yeah. And so it's hurting people, right? Like real people every day. Are there lots of families and businesses nearby?

Margaret Gordon: West Oakland is a community of 24,000 plus people. So you have almost a third of the community who are inundated 24/7 by traffic. We are, some of our communities, are less than a block away from the freeway entrance and exits and also the entrance and exits to where the trucks go in and out of the port.

Jess: That is way too close. I live next to a freeway in L.A., so I sympathize with what happens with that pollution, that black soot that gets on everything when you're near shipping areas. Have you seen the health impacts on the community?

Margaret Gordon: Well, we know that one out of five children between the ages of zero and five end up in emergency hospital for respiratory problems. I know that many of the elementary schools in the area, there's only about five of them, and childcare centers, many children have their inhalers with their name on it, in the nurse's office or the teacher's office, for children to use when they want to go outside and play and when they come back inside and play. We know that the neighborhood clinic, West Oakland Health Clinic, uses and spends more money in their pharmacy on asthma medication and diabetes medication.

But also, I would like the audience to know, one of the reasons why the name Indicators is in our operational name is because we measure stuff. We have made it a primary and centralized issue to have the data, work from data and research as a focus to be able to address these issues. And we've been doing that from the beginning and that was how I got involved, learning new ways of how to identify issues in this community when I moved here in 1992 with some young people, with students at UC Berkeley, the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and with the Pacific Institute, how to address these things in a much more transitional or transformative way that nobody else had done by having evidence, having facts, being able to speak the language of the agencies, being able to speak the language of the port-related businesses, being able to speak to the city, the feds about these issues. So one of the things that has happened over the years, we have been able to apply ourselves in our work based on having that research and data. We don't do a project without the research and data.

Jess: That actually is perfect because I was going to ask you how has science played a role in your fight, and you just answered that.

Margaret Gordon: Part of the thing is that asking the right question.

Jess: That's exactly it. You've got to know what to ask.

Margaret Gordon: Yes, because nobody is coming to tell us, giving us that information. We have to have the right question. And then also, after we get the question, how do we transform that into some reform of public policy? That is the pathway to making change and that if you don't have...and it's a job, it's hard work to be consistent and contributing and having a contribution to certain issues and concerns of the community, when you have that type of resources, tools, skills, investment, funding. It takes all that on short-term, medium-term, and long-term, and that you have to have this balancing act at all times.

Jess: West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, so you work on different goals, and one of them is like getting these shipping companies to switch to electric trucks. And so who do you usually work with? I mean, port officials, government officials, shipping companies.

Margaret Gordon: All of them.

Jess: All of them?

Margaret Gordon: We developed a methodology that was more inclusive of how we would partner, how we would coordinate and collaborate. That's something different. And that's what the scientists, academia, consultants, engineers, anybody that comes through that door, that is our baseline. And also, asking the right question. And also, why are you here? Why are you here? Because people come here with different expectations, and we want to be able to address the expectation as we see fit as having the power of making change.

Jess: It has to be collaborative because you, living in the community, working here, know it best, and the scientists can help, but they don't know the community the way the people living here do.

Margaret Gordon: No, they don't. And universities and colleges are not really... Training, planners, engineers, software people, people going into communication, people going into the sciences. When you want to work with community, you've got to have a certain skill set. And it has been now for over 20 years, we have taken the time to develop a curriculum to give them those insights. I do a lot of traveling across the United States to emphasize that need for the...those, especially in agencies, who have not had an introductory or orientation to what it is to work with an impacted community.

We have developed a curriculum called Process for Solutions. Whereas that we take baby steps with individuals or groups and walk them through how you are supposed to be engaging the community, the impacted community. And how do you conduct yourself? And if you don't know, don't make an assumption. Because when you make an assumption, you're making the ass out of yourself. So we don't want you to be assuming anything. Keep asking the question. So that's been our role to achieve all the things that we have done around public policy and make a change. Whereas if you see on the walls of this room, you can see at the top is a gray and then it gets whiter as you come down. That's what's in people's houses. That's what's inside the schools. That is a particulate matter. That's not dirt. Because no dirt can fly up that high. Because we don't open up these windows that often. HVAC systems have not been put in everybody's houses. Everybody does not have air conditioning. So we have to live with training people, "Close your windows if you live close to the streets." Okay. You got to keep your windows closed. But we are in the process of, through our AB 617 action plan, how do we have public policy that any housing that's built close to a stationary or mobile source facility that indoor filtration must be added to that building.

Jess: I wanted to know a bit more about what sort of goods move through the Port of Oakland and what makes it so important, since it has been the cause of so much harm to local communities. Here’s Sam to fill us in.

Sam: The Port of Oakland is among of the 10 busiest Ports in the United States, handling over 2 million containers annually. Oakland is the primary export hub for agricultural products coming out of California’s Central Valley like fruits, nuts, wine, and refrigerated meat with most of it heading for Asia. Imports, on the other hand, tend to be more in the consumer products realm.

Oakland is somewhat unique among American Ports in that around 90 percent of cargo entering and leaving the Port does so by semi truck, rather than train. The millions of drayage truck runs to and from the port annually is a significant contributor to harmful air pollution and traffic in the West Oakland neighborhood.

Jess: What would zero emission trucks do for the community?

Margaret Gordon: Well, first of all, we had identified block-by-block hyperlocal data to say what is happening block-by-block with trucks. So we had to go and get the data and the research together so we can talk area-by-area, because the Bay Area Air Quality, California Air Research Board, nor the U.S. EPA deals with air, had that type of in-depth, on-the-ground research and data.

Jess: Hyperlocal.

Margaret Gordon: Very hyper local, block by block, so we had to...we worked with technical people who supported us in giving us that information. So it was more innovative in being able to identify what is happening on each block where trucks are coming in and out.

Jess: Yeah, exactly. You've got to be able to make the case with data and say, look, we got it. This is what we need.

Margaret Gordon: Right. And also, we have, as one of the things that we have created in our methodology, we own our own air. We're owning our own air. So we want to be able to be in the lead to talk about our air. So our 86-month project is called Owning Our Own Air. We have been able, because of that methodology of having the research and data, we have been able to have this place in environmental justice and with institutions and regulators, technical people, that when you come, you've got to come with, like I said, the right question. And having a partner agreement. That is something else also. How money is going to be spent, who owns the information that you're gathering, who gets to present it, how it's going to be distributed, when it's going to be distributed, and how even stuff in a draft, we also have the up. We put in a partner agreement. We also get to edit anything that's not pertaining to what we thought, we put time in, we will make those corrections.

Jess: That seems like essential to the process.

Margaret Gordon: Yes, because people, we know that everybody wants...lots of people want to do their things quick and dirty. No, we don't. No.

Jess: It just makes me think, because there's different bills, there's different legislation about this stuff. So are you seeing private industries step up to the plate and partner to try to get more electric trucks?

Margaret Gordon: I have been in rooms, there was the dialogue, the discussion, and the conversation. But as for follow through, why do we only still have 19 electric trucks at the Port of Oakland?

Jess: Wow. That's not enough at all.

Margaret Gordon: And also with all the federal money right now for the IRA, we developed, we as West Oakland Environmental Indicators and Earth Justice, Union of Concerned Sciences, several Environmental Defense Funds, came up with doing a collaborative, UC Berkeley. So it was about 12 or 14 organizations came together just to support the Port of Oakland to get grants for emission reduction. It's not just about we're just rubber-stamping a grant. No, we're not rubber-stamping any grants. And that the Port got to have more transparency and accountability to West Oakland. For all these federal grants, we have said, if you can't show us co-benefits, or benefits of agreement to West Oakland, we're not signing.

Jess: What I'm hearing is that they need to be anything around solving these issues needs to be transparent, accountable and actionable. Like it actually has to happen.

Margaret Gordon: Yes.

Jess: Otherwise, it's just fluff. And you can't ignore that because, I mean, a lot of these problems come from the fact that there was intentional economic and racial discrimination with redlining and with, "Let's put people near the undesirable areas, the people who don't have the voice." And so this is part of a huge effort to take the voice back, use data, and make things actually happen.

Margaret Gordon: Right, because historically, they did, when the port was started, being developed in the 1900s, there was no real issue about health.

Jess: Right.

Margaret Gordon: And health problems came in when FHA, in 1937, started developing the freeways and being more involved with the mobile transportation. So we had to go all the way back to 1937 to identify why is it that the mode of transportation of freeways and highways were always put where people of color black people, American Indians, Latinos, poor white people, were in certain areas of cities. Why? Because most of that land, with those people, was unincorporated. If the land is unincorporated, it's cheap because there's no tax base. So one of the things that has came from that is that the tax base was created. Somebody made money off of putting these things in our communities where we work, live, play, and pray.

Jess: And now get sick because of everything that's gone on. So I wanted to ask you now, before the conversation that we're recording, you mentioned there was a few things you wanted to talk about because we have these mega ships, these ultra large vessels, and they wanna bring those into the Port of Oakland. Can you tell me about that?

Margaret Gordon: They were proposing to dredge the channel, because when you come into the Port of Oakland’s channel you have to go in as far as the channel go and turn around. All ships have to turn around to be able to go out back into the bay and also to the ocean. We knew that if they came, that dredging and this amount of ships, man, the containers were coming in at one time. We knew that that was an impact. Because we know also between the hours of 12:00 and 1:00, ILWU workers, international longshoremen workers, go on lunch break. And the trucks that are there to pick up or drop off containers, are queuing up inside of the port. All right. So we know there's a long line already to get in and get out. And sometimes it takes up to four hours, all depends on what ship has come in. And there's no real enforcement in making sure that once... The state did pass an idling rule. But the idling rule does not protect the community of West Oakland if they're idling inside the gate. They're still idling.

Jess: And there's no enforcement.

Margaret Gordon: There's no enforcement.

Jess: I see.

Jess: Again, here’s Sam Wilson with some additional insight on why we need to get these Heavy Duty vehicles electrified ASAP.

Sam: Heavy-duty trucks, like semis, dump trucks, and box trucks, are just one-tenth of the vehicles on our roads and highways, but are responsible for around half of smog-forming and lung-damaging pollution and just under one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Electric trucks offer several benefits including eliminating tailpipe pollution, reducing lifecycle pollution by over 80 percent when powered by renewable energy, and significantly lower and more predictable fuel and maintenance costs for vehicle operators.

Margaret Gordon: So if we got 19,000 containers coming in, what will we look like? And some of the docks don't have gates. They still depend on the streets of West Oakland to queue up. Certain parts of the port does not have enough area for all those trucks to be able to line up. They're lined up all the way into the neighborhood, especially around 7th Street and Frontage Road. They'd be lined up around, almost to the freeway. They do not want to put in the EIR, the Environmental Impact Report. They do not want to address it. So we are finding everywhere and anywhere how to make them address it. We already as an organization, West Oakland Environmental Indicators, have had administrative complaint on the city of Oakland and the port during the rebuilding of the former Army base, Oakland Army base. We filed a Title VI civil rights complaint because they refused to do community engagement. We might have to end up doing the same thing. And we also sued the port recently because they want to bring in this company from Canada who will bring the stuff in and make cement. They did not want to cover it up.

So what happened was that through a legal company, lawyers from this legal company came to us and pursued us, "We would like to do pro bono work with y'all to sue them." And we won. There's no money, but we got stipulations, which to me is better than money.

Jess: Yeah, money just, it goes away. But if you have that stipulation in there…

Margaret Gordon: There's those stipulations in there. There's those stipulations. For the next 10, 15 years.

Jess: Okay, so it makes me want to ask, because obviously you've been doing this for a long time. How are the young people in the community? Are they excited to help out? Is it hard to get them engaged?

Margaret Gordon: No. We have made partnerships with various youth groups over the years. And we just, on December 6th, we had a town hall meeting. Okay. And we had three tables of youth groups bringing their stuff about how they want to be involved in West Oakland or the city of Oakland or their neighborhood.

Jess: So people do want to get into it. Young kids. That's the future because we've got to have everybody. Everybody has to join in to protect a community. It's not just one person or one small group's job.

Margaret Gordon: In the past, we have had summer programs, summer academies with the youth groups and training about environmental justice, about the port, about the freeways, the conditions of West Oakland. So we still are continuing doing that for this next generation. And also, I am working with young professionals at UC Berkeley for the Rondell Institute and Just Cities to bring my experience to these students who are part of the Environmental Science Department at UC Berkeley.

Jess: That's amazing and I think that it's really impressive to me you've been here since 1992. I mean, that's a long time you've seen a lot you've learned a lot and you've changed a lot for the better. I mean it's a lot of impact so one thing I like to ask everybody that I talk to for the show, we're the Union of Concerned Scientists, right? Well, so Ms. Margaret, why are you concerned?

Margaret Gordon: I have asthma. And I come from a family who've always been engaged. All right. They have always been engaged in something, in the church, social clubs, somebody gets sick, somebody needs some housing, somebody needs a job. I had a family that had always been engaged. I have carried on that same tradition from my elders in my family, on both sides of the family, on my mother's side and my father's side. They have always been engaged. And with the era of civil rights and the development of African American studies, with the era of having the Black Panthers, the era of the Great Strike, those things have contributed to me to be where I am right now. So I guess I come from this family of people who stood up, who stood up for the underdog and made complaints. My parents, in the '60s, when they were building BART, we lived on the borderline of San Francisco and Daly City. My parents fought the state of California around eminent domain for them to get a fair market price for their house. So that was one of my first real activities, actions, to knock on doors.

Jess: That's how you do it. That's how you build activists.

Margaret Gordon: Yeah, so that's my story. And so I've been involved in multiple reform or transformation projects for over 50 years.

Jess: So are you at all concerned about the next generation? Are they going to carry it forward?

Margaret Gordon: All depends on who is giving them...who is supporting them to ask the right question. All right? Yeah. Around the actions, the activities, and the advocacy. Who is supporting them? Because you can get caught up real easy if you don't have a baseline, real baseline of an orientation. Because people will tell you anything to get you out of the way or to misuse you. So how do you find your internal strengths if you're going to do this work? And that's part of my role. How do I support you, mentor you, and give you a pathway of doing this? Because it didn't come easy for me. I didn't go to college for none of this.

Jess: You learned it all on the job.

Margaret Gordon: I learned all this on the job. I tell everybody, I came to a meeting and I never left.

This is the last time I get to thank Rich Hayes for production help, as he is moving on from UCS after 30 years of tirelessly fighting the good fight. Rich, you’re genuinely irreplaceable and I will sincerely miss working with you so so much. Thanks again to Omari Spears and the UCS Clean Transportation Team for production help on this episode, and to Anthony Eyring for our multimedia magic. Keep on truckin’, Science Pals!

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