If you live in West Oakland, you’re more likely to visit the emergency room for a respiratory illness than anywhere else in the Bay Area. The culprit is diesel pollution, and heavy-duty trucks are a big part of the problem. Now, truckers like Bill Aboudi are going to be part of the solution.
There are over 7,000 trucks that drive through West Oakland every single day. Some of them are Bill Aboudi’s.
Bill’s a big guy. His navy baseball hat says “Oakland trucker” and when I meet him, he’s catching a smoke break. We’re under the overpass to the Bay Bridge, at the headquarters of his trucking company. Bill’s trucks are big polluters, so he’s part of a new plan to improve the air quality in West Oakland. Truck routes are a major issue. One of his drivers rolls up in a truck.
“We'll jump in here,” Bill says. We hop in so Bill can show me why trucks drive through the neighborhood in the first place.
We drive into the Port of Oakland. “As soon as we pass this like this is where the marine terminal starts,” Bill tells me.
There are pastel-colored containers stacked as far as the eye can see. “You can almost drop it down to like a Lego type of kid putting blocks together.”
There’s a long line of trucks and it stretches back for two miles. There are even food trucks for the truckers. “Yeah, we have a lot of taco trucks here,” Bill says. “Very good taco trucks.”
Once drivers get to the front of the line, they head off for delivery. We get out of the truck, and into Bill’s car. He shows me the typical way drivers enter and exit the port, over an overpass into the heart of West Oakland. 21,000 people live here, and it’s mostly black and low-income.
Bill says residents don’t often go into the industrial side of town. “We're neighbors but they don't know this place exists.”
But residents definitely see the trucks. They’re scattered outside different businesses.
I quickly spot a truck, “Right?” Bill says. “So because he's probably stopping at the Chinese food down the street to get a bite to eat, or he's doing some business at the post office.”
It makes sense: where there’s a big port, there’s a lot of polluting trucks. And truck drivers need a place to go for food and services, so they go into residential streets. But that’s a problem.
“I'll even take it to a computer and just wipe your finger. And you'll see not only the dust, but you'll see the black soot.” Bill literally sees the environmental impact of diesel pollution every day. And West Oakland residents feel it. The diesel particles that come out of trucks are proven to make asthma, heart disease and other chronic issues worse.
“The pollution is bad. It really affects me, really does.” Sharon Snell has lived in West Oakland for her whole life. She’s 69 years old. We’re outside St. Mary’s Center, an organization that serves seniors who are at-risk of becoming homeless. Snell has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Every day, she gets air from an oxygen tank and nebulizer machine at home and carries an inhaler in her purse.For folks with chronic issues like Snell, a day of bad air pollution can mean a trip to the ER.
She tells me: “When I can’t breathe it hurts me to my heart because I feel helpless and I’m not a helpless person. But when I can't breathe, I get teary eyes because I this is not me but it is me have to deal with this and work with this.”
Currently, Snell has housing. She can escape the air. Others aren’t so lucky. On my walk to St. Mary’s, I passed many homeless encampments right next to the freeway.
Carolyn is currently homeless in West Oakland, and she has asthma. “And since I've been homeless, it's been worse. I've been to the hospital and homeless for almost four years and four years I've been to the hospital for my asthma almost 200 times. Now staying here I've gone by every other week.”
This problem isn’t new. Local activist group The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project has been fighting for cleaner air for years. They argue that the problem isn’t just caused by trucks like Bill’s. There’s DIESEL BOATS AND TRAINS, polluting companies, as well as the area’s never-ending construction.
They’ve tried to tackle the problem with lawsuits, but activists say nothing concrete came out of that strategy.
But then California passed AB 617 in 2017, a law that required Oakland to summon a task force to actually come up with a plan to fix the bad air. The task force consists of the Port of Oakland, the City, truckers like Bill Aboudi, and activists.
For activists, this is a huge step forward.“We have come a long way from slinging lawsuits at each other to being in a room saying, look, we all recognize the problem.”
Activist Brian Beveridge is co-director of The Environmental Indicators Project. I meet him at a town hall earlier this summer, where the taskforce unveiled their community action plan, called “Owning our Air.”
“So we brought in this aspect of exposure reduction, which requires a whole different set of tools,” Beveridge says.
Instead of focusing on reducing emissions, the plan will move polluting trucks and industries out of downtown West Oakland.Truckers like Bill will have to redraw their truck routes away from residential areas.
Back in the car where Bill is showing me where trucks currently drive in West Oakland, we pass a new housing development.
“These are $900,000 units,” he says. “So I can't even afford them.” But right next door, there’s CASS, a big recycling plans.
Recycling plants are big air polluters themselves, and they attract a bunch of trash trucks. So the new plan is making them leave. This plant will be relocated to the old Oakland Army Base by 2024. But the problem doesn’t end there.
We roll up to one of the most polluted West Oakland intersections, 3rd and Adeline. It’s right by where trucks enter and exit the port. We see old historic townhouses right next to a service center for truckers.
“That's all used to be industrial,” Bill tells me. “This was a bakery, right? All of that is residential now.”
Truckers need these services, but right now they’re next door to people’s houses. So Bill is getting a lease from the city to develop his truck yard into a transit hub for truckers with full services: fuel, tires, food, even a place to check the mail. The location is close to the Port, so the strategy is to draw trucks away from restaurants and gas stations near people’s homes.
The new plan is also training city workers to enforce tickets and other penalties for truckers who park or idle in the streets. But these things take time. Bill says these measures are like trying to unravel history.
“In the old days, you would build your factory down the street from where you live. Right. So that's West Oakland. It's so hard with planning to change things the way we used to be, to the way we are now. We understand a lot more and we know the proximity is what causes the health impact.”
Finally, we pull back into the truck yard… and spot a bright orange truck that’s different from the others. “So these boxes is where the fuel tanks would go,” Bill points out. “And they're just battery.”
Its nickname is “Tesla,” and it runs on battery power alone. But it’s the only one in a yard full of diesel-burning 18-wheelers. A long-term strategy in the plan is to switch all the freight equipment in the Port of Oakland to battery-powered vehicles. Until then, keeping diesel trucks away from residents could save lives.
Bill Aboudi says it’s up to the truckers to help make it happen. “It's not trucker against community. We're both the same. We're human beings, and we just need to get our planet to be clean and, and do the proper thing.”
To read the whole plan, visit the Bay Area Air Quality Management District website.