The toxic saturation of West Oakland – Town Hall tonight, Feb. 26, 6:30-8 p.m., West Oakland Senior Center

Council member Lynette McElhaney, shown here at a press conference on Feb. 20, is troubled by the discovery of the toxic chemical TCE in groundwater beneath McClymonds High School. – Photo: Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group

by Minister of Information JR Valrey

On Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, the Oakland Unified School District announced the closure of McClymonds High School, after trichloroethylene (TCE) was found on and around the campus. After decades of corporate ecological terrorism, with no cleanup or restoration, West Oakland residents are still dealing with the effects of living in a poisoned environment.

After looking for petroleum leaks, inspectors found a chemical that was far more sinister and harder to cleanup in the groundwater, soil and air of certain parts of West Oakland. This West Oakland story compares to Flint, Michigan, because the toxic recklessness and neglect has resulted in the mass poisoning of a Black community.

The government, led by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, knowingly changed Flint’s drinking water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River, a cheaper source but one that is heavily contaminated. It corroded the lead pipes that carry the water into people’s homes so that the water had a high lead level that threatens the health of everyone – but children far more than adults.

Flint is a mostly Black city. In West Oakland, also traditionally Black, former government regimes have let corporations and the military get away with contaminating the land and water and then leave without cleaning up their ecological messes – a similar situation to what Hunters Point is experiencing.

So I talked with Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney about the situation since she is one of the people in position to know and someone who can demand answers.

Special Environmental Town Hall

Councilwoman McElhaney urges everyone who might be affected or wants to support a solution to come to a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 6:30-8:00 p.m., at the West Oakland Senior Center, 1724 Adeline St. RSVP at https://west-oakland-environmental-town-hall.eventbrite.com.

McClymonds High School has been closed since Tuesday, with students attending classes at other district schools and taking lots of field trips. – Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, SF Chronicle

M.O.I. JR: What is making the area in West Oakland by McClymonds test positive for toxins harmful to human health? And what are the details?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: Alameda County was on site to remove a legacy petroleum tank that was previously used to heat buildings. While testing to confirm that there was no petroleum leakage, they discovered trichloroethylene (TCE) in the groundwater.

M.O.I. JR: How and when exactly did this happen?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: It is uncertain. The state EPA and county environmental health departments are on site doing more advanced studies to determine the source of the intrusion and the nature of the contamination.

M.O.I. JR: Who exactly is responsible for the spill and who is responsible for the cleanup?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has now assumed primary jurisdiction for the investigation.

M.O.I. JR: When and how will the government enforce the cleanup? How can we make sure that West Oakland doesn’t turn into another ecological disaster like Treasure Island and Hunters Point?

Parents who are worried and wondering if the newly discovered toxins could have caused the recent cancer deaths of two McClymonds football players spoke out at an OUSD meeting Monday at West Oakland Middle School. – Photo: Jane Tyska, Bay Area News Group

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: I am working closely with County Supervisor Keith Carson and have engaged our state elected officials, Assemblymember Rob Bonta and State Sen. Nancy Skinner. We are all committed to address this concern. I have also taken further action to demand that all responsible agencies come together to quantify the known environmental conditions and to develop a plan to mitigate the health risks and disparities that have plagued our community for decades.

M.O.I. JR: Can you explain exactly what is contaminated – is it air, water, soil? And how serious is the contamination?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: The preliminary results suggest that the TCE is contained in the groundwater.

M.O.I. JR: How can the city claim that the toxin TCE has not reached the drinking water when it is openly acknowledged that the toxin is in the groundwater and soil that the pipes carrying drinking water runs through? Have the pipes themselves been tested for toxin saturation or are they going to be tested in the future?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: EBMUD, our water provider, has said there is no threat to EBMUD drinking water, which is sourced from the Mokelumne River and Pardee Reservoir in the Sierra foothills. Water flows through pressurized pipes which does not allow for any water to intrude into the pipes.

M.O.I. JR: What means are the city of Oakland using to alert the community surrounding McClymonds High that they are in danger of being poisoned if they haven’t been already?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: I have convened an inter-agency community Town Hall that will bring all the key departments together to tell the public what is currently known about environmental risks. West Oakland, like many communities throughout the Bay Area, has been ravaged by decades of unsustainable business practices. The discovery of TCE has brought to light how the community needs to demand better coordination and timely removal of the harms.

I am grateful that all of the electeds representing my district have so far responded very positively to the community’s request for response.

M.O.I. JR: How would you compare this ecological disaster to the poisoning of the citizens of Flint, Michigan?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: This is absolutely not Flint. In Flint, the current elected officials used their political power to poison the people of Flint by changing the water supply from the treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. This was elected leaders abusing the people of Flint in the modern era.

West Oakland suffers from a legacy of environmental injustice, practices that have led to health disparities that date back to the 20th century. Fortunately, we now have elected officials who are from these neighborhoods who each place a priority on environmental justice.

West Oakland suffers from a legacy of environmental injustice, practices that have led to health disparities that date back to the 20th century.

I am working to make sure that as we work to secure new conditions for McClymonds, we are simultaneously calling for greater coordination to deliver a response that will redress the health inequity and health risks.

M.O.I. JR: How can people keep up with meetings surrounding this issue?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: I am going to continue to include updates in my regular email and will also post information on my website. McClymonds has also put up a website.

M.O.I. JR: How does ensuring that West Oakland residents live in a clean environment relate to your agenda for re-election to the Oakland City Council?

Lynette Gibson McElhaney: I live here. Public health is one of my four pillars of service. I have been active in demanding better health and safety outcomes for our community and will continue to lock arms with my neighbors who are working to redress injustice.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.