Claimed Civil Rights Violations by City of Oakland

Posted on Thursday, May 25th, 2017 at 2:57 pm    

By Rachel Silber, Spolin Law Criminal and Civil Rights Law Clerk

Earthjustice, purportedly the largest nonprofit environmental law organization in the nation, is representing a historically African American West Oakland community in a case that claims their civil rights have been violated by the City and Port of Oakland. For more than a decade, the City and Port of Oakland have allowed for numerous expansions in pollution-emitting activities. In response, the citizens of Oakland have described their experiences in decreasing health due to increased diesel emissions. The Pacific Institute, in conjunction with the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, found in a recent report that Oakland has diesel emissions 90 times higher than the California average.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a pillar civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or nationality, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project has filed a complaint in opposition of the city’s systemic neglect for its residents well-being. As 80% of the West Oakland city is populated with minorities, the Project alleges that that the community is suffering at the hands of racial discrimination from the City and Port. Margaret Gordon, a team member on the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and community member for over 20 years, recalls how difficult and unjust it is to live with toxic pollution. The community’s struggle due to the City and Port’s approval for industrial expansion has increased unhealthy vapors that infiltrate both the lungs and homes of community residence. Yana Garcia, an attorney who focuses on environmental justice issues with Earthjustice, states that the City and Port have, “consistently ignored federal protections against discrimination,” and adds how the city’s administration does not plague other parts of Oakland, where the [racial] demographics are different.

The US National Library of Medicine lists in a 2001 medical journal how an “association between different levels of air pollution and various health outcomes including mortality, exacerbation of asthma, chronic bronchitis, respiratory tract infections, heart disease and stroke”  have been correlated. The seniors and children in the West Oakland community have experienced “gasping asthma attacks.” The residents have been reported twice as likely to be sent to the emergency room than the Alameda country average. A release from the Alameda Country Department of Public Health notes that the residents of West Oakland can expect to live nine years less than those on in other parts of Oakland. This does not sit well with the community.

The City and Port of Oakland receive federal funds. This means that Earthjustice can use Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, a section that declares that “any agency receiving federal money cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.”  Because the City any and Port allegedly utilize these grants to fund projects that increase dangerous health hazards for the community, Earthjustice argues that the City and Port have a responsibility and obligation to ensure the safety and equal opportunity between Oakland districts. The complaint has been sent to the Department of Transportation as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If Earthjustice’s complaint is accepted, a full-scale investigation into the City and Port of Oakland’s engagements will be examined. The EPA determines if a complaint warrants an investigation within 20 days, with 180 to reach a conclusion. If the City and Port of Oakland are found to have committed the acts outlined in the complaint, the administration is given a chance to fix the issue. If the city’s administration chooses not to, the EPA has the ability to withhold federal funds. The withholding of federal funding does not equate to factories having to shut down. If they have the financial means, these factories have the chance to continue their operations, no matter the pollution emissions. Additionally, a possible conflict of interest between Earthjustice and their submitted complaint to the EPA may warrant more obstacles. With a political shift and a transitioning EPA, there may not be as much tenacity within the EPA to resolve the issue as there once was in previous years. Whether the political climate will affect this specific case is unknown. Nonetheless, Earthjustice highlights that communities with complaints under Title VI have been awaiting a response for more than a decade.

In October of 2016, Prologis, a major developer, was given permission by the City and Port to build an Oakland Army Base warehouse. What they did not include in their plan was an air quality improvement strategy. The community apparently expects 55 truck docks, and 78 truck trailer stalls. The amount of construction vehicles that number of parking stalls amounts to is unknown. Presumptively, the West Oakland community can expect a drastic increase in the poor quality of air with the addition of this new project. Even if the EPA accepts West Oakland’s complaint, with viable evidence against the construction of the Army Base warehouse, the EPA has never formally reported a violation of civil rights in the plethora of cases they’ve investigated. It is with this information that Earthjustice has made the additional move of simultaneously filing cases with the federal courts in California.

While there are laws to protect the environment, there are limitations inherent in the organizations tasked with enforcing these laws. Although California is at the forefront of environment protectionist laws, and Earthjustice is doing everything in their organizational power to defend the City of Oakland’s community, advocates argue that time is of the essence. With an increase in hospital visits in conjunction with an increase in construction and pollution-emitting activities, there is no resolution in sight. It will be up to Earthjustice and their push in the federal courts to yield results. In utilizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect a community comprised of 49% African Americans, 17% Latinos, and 13% Asians, one may see how Earthjustice has a suitable case that may even be powerful enough to reach the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the health of the community is expected to continue its decline. The daunting odds and difficult path ahead will not stop West Oakland’s citizens and activist organizations from pressing forward in the fight for an improved quality of life.

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