Belinda Castro Ambriz, student. Credit: Amir Aziz

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As an infant, Belinda Castro Ambriz and her family lived with her grandparents a few blocks away from the Fruitvale BART Station and Interstate 880. She suffered frequent asthma attacks, and her mom always had to have her daughter’s inhaler nearby. After they moved to a house near WIlliam D. Wood Park, closer to Interstate 580, her attacks subsided, leaving the family to wonder whether an improvement in air quality caused the change.

“I don’t know if it’s related, but it’s something that we’ve noticed is different,” said Maria Ambriz, Belinda’s mom. 

Students like Belinda, now an 11-year-old at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, are among those calling attention to environmental racism and pollution that disproportionately affects Black and brown neighborhoods in East Oakland, which also has some of the highest rates of COVID-19, a disease that causes many to have difficulty breathing. 

She and other budding environmentalists point to a 70-year-old truck ban on Interstate 580 that funnels diesel-powered vehicles, and their fuel emissions, onto Interstate 880, which runs through East Oakland’s flatlands. They also identify industrial factories in the area that release harmful fumes, like one metal foundry near the Coliseum, as sources of air pollution. The students have been writing to Oakland city leaders, talking to residents to hear their concerns about the environment, and joining committee meetings to convince officials to designate East Oakland a protected community under Assembly Bill 617, which would provide extra funding to address pollution. 

Belinda, with her sixth grade class, recently read “A Tale of Two Freeways,’ a project from the Environmental Defense Fund examining the impacts of the truck ban on air quality. With their teacher, Patrick Messac, they discussed how a policy like the truck ban can negatively impact Oakland’s flatland communities, and wrote letters to Oakland city officials with their concerns. They also recorded a 6-minute podcast

The Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization, found that levels of black carbon, a harmful chemical produced by diesel engines, are 80% higher on I-880 than on I-580. Nitrogen dioxide, another type of air pollutant, had levels 60% higher on I-880 than on I-580.

“While [neighbors around I-580] are having their happy lives, people near 880 are having struggles. It makes me angry and upset and disappointed because people are struggling and suffering and I really don’t like that,” Belinda said in an interview with The Oaklandside.

Another student, Sofia Gutierrez Perez, wrote to public officials about the increased health issues that can come with living near a loud and busy freeway.

“My sister has asthma, so knowing that we live in a place where the air quality is bad is concerning, because it can hurt her,” Sofia said in an interview with The Oaklandside.

Trucks ride along the Interstate 880 highway in East Oakland. Diesel trucks are banned from Oakland’s other main freeway, Interstate 580. Credit: Amir Aziz

Pollutants from freeways can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases, and can exacerbate hypertension and asthma among people who live nearby, said Fern Uennatornwaranggoon, an air quality policy manager with EDF. The I-880 truck ban’s legacy is steeped in racism and classism, she added.

“It’s both a result of structural racism as well as worsening inequality—given that the residents who live along 580 have more political power, tended to be a whiter population back in the day, as well as having higher incomes,” she said. “Having a more polluted freeway running through your communities contributes to worse health outcomes that could affect school performance and job opportunities.” 

The ban, which is the only one of its kind on freeways in the U.S., dates back about 70 years, according to Caltrans. Truck traffic was initially banned from MacArthur Boulevard in 1951, before I-580 was constructed. In the 1960s, a committee called Citizens Against Trucks on the MacArthur Freeway formed to oppose the potential lifting of the ban, which was set to expire in 1968, on the new interstate. Committee members claimed that repealing the ban would raise noise levels in the areas near the new 580 freeway, and the truck traffic would “downgrade the entire area,” according to a 1967 article in the Oakland Tribune. In late 1967, the ban was extended indefinitely and prohibited all vehicles that weighed more than 4.5 tons from driving on I-580. In the years since, the ban has faced challenges from the trucking industry, but in 2000 it was added to the California vehicle code, explicitly prohibiting vehicles that weigh more than 9,000 pounds from an 8-mile stretch of I-580, from Grand Avenue to the San Leandro border.

Messac, who teaches science at Life Academy, said he wanted to draw attention to the policies that lead to higher pollution in their predominantly Black and brown, working class neighborhoods that lie above and below I-880

“As an educator, I have a responsibility to provide context,” he wrote in an email. “Our students are keen observers in the world and when they see disparate health outcomes, I need them to understand that there is nothing wrong with Black or Brown bodies.”

Sarai Parker, a 16-year-old student at Coliseum College Prep Academy, is also working to understand the impacts of air pollution in Oakland. This week she’ll measure the particulate matter at her home in North Oakland, where she and her family moved in January, and compare it to the air near the Oakland Coliseum, where she used to live. With the data she collects through April, Parker plans to make a presentation to residents in those communities. 

The high school sophomore has also advocated for the California Air Resources Board to make East Oakland a protected community under Assembly Bill 617, which identifies areas in California that have poor air quality, and provides funding to help those communities monitor and address pollution. West Oakland was selected for the program in 2018. 

“More people should be aware of this. Not that it’s their fault that they’re unaware of environmental justice, but it’s important that there are more resources and people talking about it, so we can do something and find solutions,” said Parker, who also serves as a youth fellow with the Rose Foundation, an Oakland organization that promotes environmental justice. 

David Belle, another Rose Foundation fellow, interviewed residents of Lion Creek Crossings, a public housing complex located across from the Oakland Coliseum and half a mile away from AB&I Foundry, which produces cast iron pipes. The residents spoke with Belle and the other Rose Foundation fellows during focus groups about air pollution and other environmental concerns in their East Oakland neighborhood.

In 2018, the foundry released 18,000 tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that can contribute to global warming, according to the California Air Resources Board

“East Oakland is kind of neglected when it comes to air quality,” Belle said, citing the area’s proximity to the foundry, the airport, and diesel trucks on I-880.

While Belinda, the sixth grade student, doesn’t suffer from asthma attacks anymore, she still wants East Oaklanders to have cleaner air to breathe. She recently asked her teacher to deliver a letter she’d written to District 5 City Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents her neighborhood. In the letter, she suggested that he push for more electric vehicles and less reliance on fossil fuels in Oakland. 

Uennatornwaranggoon, the air quality policy manager, said rather than allowing trucks on I-580 as a way to “spread around pollution equally,” a better solution would be to support a transition to zero-emission vehicles.

While local government officials and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District have oversight of stationary facilities like the foundry, she said, advocates should go to state leaders to press for changes in emissions standards for vehicles, especially heavy-duty trucks. 

“It’s really about prioritizing investments for those cleaner technologies in the communities that have been the most burdened and impacted by air pollution,” she said.

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.