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Ensuring Life, Health and Prosperity for Future Generations

> Oakland kids see how port pollution hits home

From his home, Antone Smith can see glimpses of the Port of Oakland. He sees the soot coating his windowsills, the trucks endlessly rumbling by his street. But not until recently did the sixth-grader pay much heed to the mighty but unhealthy colossus in his neighborhood.

“I didn’t know all the smoke from the port was dangerous,” said Antone, 12. “I didn’t know it could be life-threatening. I didn’t know anything about the port.”

That changed last week when Antone and 38 other youngsters from a West Oakland school toured the fringes of the port, taking a crash course on the health and environmental hazards associated with the country’s fourth-largest port. As part of a social justice class at St. Martin de Porres, the sixth- and seventh-graders also spent much of their bus tour learning about the working conditions of the port’s army of independent truck drivers, many of them immigrants.

“A lot of kids, even though they live here, don’t know what the port is,” said Kathrina Weekes, the school’s vice principal and science teacher. “The idea is that this tour might help them understand why they have asthma or other health issues, help them realize the impact of the port.”

The port has increasingly come under fire from environmental, religious and labor organizations, in part because of dirty emissions tied to several thousand big rigs that daily travel through the community to the port to pick up cargo. Studies have found that diesel particulate pollution from the vehicles is linked to disproportionately high rates of asthma and other health and environmental problems in West Oakland.

“Children living in West Oakland can expect to be robbed of 10 years of life due in part to the pollution generated by the port and companies that use the port,” said Dr. Anthony Iton, director of the Alameda County Public Health Department. “That is a tragedy. It is an ongoing crisis of health.

“On top of the shorter life expectancies are high rates of asthma, chronic lung disease and heart disease related to diesel particulate pollution. Nobody is laying all the pollution and the adverse environmental impacts at the feet of the port, but it generates an enormous amount of life-shortening pollution.”

Port’s search for solutions

During the last year, the port has been working with representatives of various community and environmental groups, and with regulatory agencies, to develop comprehensive plans on truck management and air pollution reduction. According to port spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur, the Oakland Board of Port Commissioners will probably review a draft of policy principles this month.

“We are working with our partners to achieve our goal that, by the year 2020, the Port of Oakland will have cut the health risk from diesel pollution by 85 percent,” she said.

She said that port staff has been lobbying for funding from the California Air Resources Board to pay for projects that could include truck retrofitting and replacements to reduce diesel pollution. “Air pollution comes from many sources in the Bay Area,” she said. “We want to do our part to reduce diesel pollution from port-related activities.”

The school tour Thursday was not a sanctioned port event, but Iton, the county public health director, applauded it, saying it gave students a valuable insight into an insidious problem.

“We know that education is directly related to health,” he said. “It is critical that students learn about the fundamental injustice imbalance between the port and the community.”

The brainchild of Michael Smith, a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology, the event was sponsored by the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, which represents 65 community, environmental, labor and interfaith communities.

The trip started with an admonition to the students: Don’t push the bus alarm buttons.

“God help us all,” said the Rev. Ricky Jenkins of Emmanuel Church of Christ in East Oakland, who acted as emcee.

Connecting with the past

Aboard were a handful of students with asthma. Many others said they have relatives with the ailment.

“I carry my inhaler with me all the time just in case I have an asthma attack,” said Darryl Williams, 12.

Milton Lewis, vice president of Teamsters Local 70, gave the students a brief but vivid history lesson of the neighborhood.

“People came here from all over the country because there were a lot of jobs and a lot of music and dance clubs,” he said. “What the community is now is not what it used to be. You guys have a chance to change things. You are the future.”

After traveling around West Oakland, the bus stopped at the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park. Parked there was a 350-horsepower, 19-year-old big rig owned by Manuel Rivas, one of the port’s independent contractors.

A driver for two decades, Rivas told the students in Spanish that his day typically begins at 4 a.m.

“Years ago there were good jobs, each of us made about $1,400 a week and we spent about $100 on fuel,” he said. “Today I make $1,300 to $1,400 a week, but I spend $400 to $500 on fuel.”

The bus tour ended with a pop quiz back at the school gym.

“I used to wonder what the port was like,” said Antone, the sixth-grader. “I thought the port was going to look like factories. It’s a beautiful place. But it creates problems.”

E-mail Elizabeth Fernandez at efernandez@sfchronicle.com.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/03/03/BAOCVBIN7.DTL

This article appeared on page B – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/03/03/BAOCVBIN7.DTL

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