Toxic waste lurking in the soil under the San Francisco Bay community of West Oakland, and places like it, is the next environmental threat in a neighborhood already burdened by pollution. Residents in these communities of color are calling for climate justice as a form of reparations.
The stability of buried contamination from Oakland’s industrial past relies on it staying in the soil. But once the rising waters of San Francisco Bay press inland and get underneath these pockets of pollution, a certain amount of that waste will not stay in place. Instead, it will begin to move.
More than 130 sites lie in wait.
Human-caused climate change is already forcing this groundwater rise in West Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area. Climate scientists warn plumes of waste will migrate underground, exposing communities of color to contamination decades before floods gush over the industrial shoreline.
“These are environmental health issues that need to be addressed now,” said UC Berkeley’s Rachel Morello-Frosch, a researcher with Toxic Tides, a project that maps contamination in the path of sea level rise.
The toxic waste and pollution in West Oakland result from the legacy of racism in housing, economics and other policies over decades. Residents didn’t consent to living in these conditions. Now they’re demanding to be significant players in any climate resilience plans.
Sitting on a park bench in front of her second-story apartment, Margaret Gordon, a 75-year-old Black woman with a legacy of environmental advocacy, said the threat from underground toxics only adds to the neighborhood’s severe environmental hardships. West Oakland is one of many communities of color disproportionately affected by climate change globally.
As a resident of a historically Black community, she sees climate justice as a form of reparations, a payment in money and services to repair the harm of conscious decisions, such as government leaders allowing toxic industries to operate in the neighborhood, devaluing the lives of Black people.
“The reparation movement is the next level of civil rights,” said Gordon. “We should not be in a position of just surviving. We should be thriving.”
Gordon described how three freeways box in the roughly 23,000 people living in this industrial landscape, three-quarters of them people of color living with the strain of low wages, high housing costs and poor health from increased exposure to pollution.
“There’s tons of pollutants, or toxics, in the ground,” Gordon said. “You cannot put up a garden without having your soil tested.”
Gordon founded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to demand environmental justice for people of color. Unsurprisingly, West Oakland is one of the California cities most at risk from groundwater rise.
“It still comes down to race,” Gordon said.
Climate justice and reparations are the same projects, according to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, author of the book Reconsidering Reparations with a chapter on climate reparations.
“Climate change and reparations in terms of a response to the history of racial injustice have the same roots,” he said.
Because climate change is already altering life for many communities of color, Táíwò said the two concepts are synonymous.
“Even if you didn’t buy the historical story about why reparations and climate crisis are linked, I think there is a straightforward, practical story if you want to change who faces [high] levels of death, disease and displacement,” he said.
A dangerous game of inches
On the northernmost edge of the neighborhood, about a half-mile from San Francisco Bay, sit a row of new, charcoal gray and white condominiums. The area is boxed in by freeways and there’s also a major truck route running through the neighborhood. Both speak to the city’s industrial past. In 1880, the Oakland shoreline ran through this section.
The area, like most of West Oakland, is flat. Between these homes and the bay are at least three hazardous sites.
Gordon said these homes could “be the first victims of sea level rise.”
Many people in West Oakland don’t understand that this looming disaster is under their feet because, according to Gordon, they have enough to do simply to meet their basic needs. The median income for Black West Oakland residents is about $30,000, a third of the median income that white people earn annually, according to the City of Oakland.
In extreme scenarios, entire Bay Area shorelines could be swamped by as much as 10.1 feet of brackish water by 2100. But scientists say it won’t take feet to loosen toxic contaminants in West Oakland’s soil and render them dangerous to humans.
As bay waters rise and threaten flooding over the land, it presses a layer of salty water under the ground. This salty water seeps in below the existing groundwater, pushing it upward until, at some point, it touches contaminated soil.
Groundwater rise, then, is a dangerous game of inches, according to Kristina Hill, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley. Very subtle changes to the shallow groundwater can pressure and crack sewer pipes, while chemicals can corrode them.
As contaminants begin to move, they can spread toxics already in the soil, releasing poisonous gases that flow in and around these pipes. Those gases can enter buildings through cracked cement or plumbing, poisoning residents. Methane can even explode with an errant spark.
“There are going to be real health risks,” Hill said.
West Oakland became an industrial powerhouse 150 years ago when the transcontinental railroad ended its journey at this bay’s edge. Over time, shipbuilding, metal foundries and manufacturing filled the small corner of Oakland, followed later by gas stations, dry cleaners and auto yards.
Racist home lending policies such as redlining relegated Black people to this neighborhood, preventing them from seeking housing outside the industrialized area.
“In Oakland, where there has been redlining is exactly where all the toxic sites are,” said Phoenix Armenta, senior manager for climate equity and community engagement with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
West Oakland has been the economic engine of the city. Yet, residents are victims of racist policies that exposed them to life-threatening environmental pollution without their consent, said Dorothy Lazard, who retired two years ago as the managing librarian of the Oakland History Center.
“It is a lesson in discrimination, disregard and diminishment of a population that helped build the city,” she said.
In the late 1940s, West Oakland was named among the city’s top blighted areas in an Oakland Planning Commission study. The authors wrote neighborhoods like West Oakland were “grim” and “ugly” because of deteriorating buildings, overcrowding and limited housing. Local and federal policies worsened the blight, Lazard said, by seizing land through eminent domain and destroying homes and businesses for freeways, public housing and a BART station. The government-sanctioned actions conspicuously decimated a historic Black neighborhood.
“Claiming things through eminent domain is commensurate with colonialism,” Lazard said. “It’s like saying we can use this as our dumping ground because we’ve already devalued this space.”
“Let’s talk about reparations”
The racism that shaped the economic and community life of West Oakland persists, according to Brandi T. Summers, a UC Berkeley geography professor.
“It’s so present that we can’t ignore it,” she said. “We can’t believe we can extract race from this conversation.”
The term “equity” has emerged as a dominant force for change at every policy level. Equity, however, isn’t a word Gordon uses to describe what’s needed for climate justice because it’s not big enough.
“Don’t talk to me about equity anymore,” she said. “Let’s talk about reparations.”
A state task force on reparations studies ways to repair the harm from enslavement and post-emancipation systemic racism. For Gordon, reparations recommendations should include cleaning up toxic sites, access to affordable housing, better healthcare, economic opportunities and power in planning decisions about climate resilience.
“We would have long-standing sustainability,” she said. “I would know there’s going to be housing for my children and grandchildren, so there’ll be a job for them.”
Reparations that bolster the local economy and raise overall health could equal potential freedom from the tendrils of enslavement even as the climate emergency worsens, said Maya Carrasquillo, a UC Berkeley environmental engineering professor.
“The full freedom to say, ‘I can leave, or I can stay,” she said. “Or, ‘I have the freedom, the values and the finances to make the future I want.”