Residents of West Oakland, members of the Chester Street Block Club Association, joined with community leaders and grassroots groups from around the west to form Greenaction in late 1997.
West Oakland is a neighborhood of Oakland, California and is located on San Francisco Bay, and is a very diverse, low-income and working class community and majority people of color, including African-American, Latino and Asians. The South Prescott/Chester Street neighborhood is impacted by many pollution sources, including the AMCO Chemical Superfund site and enormous diesel truck traffic and emissions from freeways, the Port of Oakland and truck distribution centers. However, Greenaction and residents have won several huge victories since 1997 that have reduced pollution impacting the community.
In 1997, when Caltrans began rebuilding the Cypress Freeway right through this neighborhood, Greenaction was asked by residents to help address the dust, toxics and noise problems that arose. When a plume of highly toxic vinyl chloride was discovered during the freeway work, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began an emergency remediation action and installed a Soil Vapor Extraction and Thermal Oxidation unit near 3rd and Mandela Streets to treat the contamination at what became known as the AMCO Chemical site. EPA told residents in writing and verbally that the air emissions were only “salt and steam.” Greenaction immediately informed residents that the technology was really an incinerator and that emissions included vinyl chloride and dioxin, the most toxic substance known to science. With the residents, we immediately challenged EPA to admit that the emissions were not just salt and steam, and after vocal protest and huge media attention, the EPA came to the community and apologized and admitted that Greenaction was correct. Responding to community and Greenaction’s pressure, the EPA closed this thermal oxidation incinerator and agreed to work with us to find a safer alternative.
Greenaction then worked with residents including the Chester Street Block Club Association to successfully encourage EPA to place the AMCO Chemical vinyl chloride contamination site on the federal Superfund/National Priorities List, and this occurred in September 2003. We also won a commitment from USEPA to work together with the community and Greenaction to identify and use the safest possible technology/remediation method to deal with the contamination at the site. It took many years, but in 2018 USEPA successfully finished the AMCO cleanup.
In 1999, Greenaction and residents won a big victory when we forced Caltrans and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to remediate the enormous toxic contamination at what was to become the South Prescott Neighborhood Park to residential levels, as the DTSC initially was planning to allow this children’s park to be built on top of contamination remediated only to industrial standards.
Greenaction also played a leading role in working with residents and community groups in closing the polluting Red Star Yeast facility in this same West Oakland neighborhood in 2004. Greenaction also was the leader in the historic victory that closed the IES medical waste incinerators in East Oakland in 2001, protecting local residents from dioxin and mercury emissions and resulting in the medical waste industry switching from dangerous incineration to safer sterilization treatment technologies.
Beginning in 2008, we worked with residents including the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to get US EPA to conduct a massive cleanup of lead contamination in the yards of homes in the South Prescott neighborhood. Greenaction notified residents of the true extent of the lead contamination, and with residents, we pressured EPA who agreed to provide immediate temporary relocation to families when the toxic soil was being excavated and removed. We then pressured EPA to conduct wider testing of the neighborhood for lead contamination, and they found 197 homes with high levels. EPA has since conducted a model remediation of the lead contamination, using fishbone to neutralize the lead so it no longer poses a toxic threat. This approach is a safer alternative to the traditional “dig and haul” of toxic soil to a toxic waste landfill such as Kettleman City, where other poor people would bear the burden.