Science on Our Side?

By Karen Pierce

In 1999, the Port of San Francisco proposed to issue leases to a number of cement mixing companies, concrete crushing companies and a tour bus company on their land located in Bayview Hunters Point. Bayview, a largely low-income African-American community, is home to two Superfund sites, 100 brownfield sites and a sewage treatment plant that handles 80 percent of the City’s solid wastes. Appalled about the new development plans, neighborhood residents attended a Port Commission meeting to object. As a result, the Port agreed to having a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) conducted by the City’s Department of Public Health (DPH).

During the assessment process, Port and public health authorities acknowledged that the neighborhood was already burdened with businesses and activities that release pollution in the form of particulate matter at a much higher rate than in any other neighborhood in San Francisco. There was also general acknowledgment that the neighborhood had the highest rate of hospitalizations for asthma of any neighborhood in the city. With those facts agreed to, we expected that the SEIR would find that the proposed activities should not be allowed because they would bring additional pollution, particularly diesel burning vehicles, into the neighborhood. 

The DPH scientists gathered information on the proposed additional vehicle trips in and out of the neighborhood. They looked at existing air-quality data. They reviewed neighborhood hospitalization records and cancer rates. They analyzed proximity to residential uses. They looked at prevailing winds. In other words, they gathered the evidence. 

The report, issued in 2000, found that the proposed activities would not create an undue risk to public health nor be a substantial detriment to the neighborhood, and the Port was allowed to go forward with its plan. Why did this happen? One possible reason is that one city department did not want to oppose another department. Furthermore, a few years earlier DPH had opposed a co-generation plant proposal, along with millions of dollars in rent to the Port. This latest decision may have been a way of compensating for the lost revenue.

At the present time, through hard work and good advocacy, neighborhood residents have succeeded in keeping the tour bus company off of Port property (but not out of the neighborhood). Concerned residents raised issues and demanded additional mitigation for so long that the bus company had to look for alternative space. However, we have not been able to keep any of the other Port leases from moving forward. We believe that while the science was on our side, politics was on the side of business and income to the city.

Science and research can strengthen our calls for environmental justice, and we must continue to ask for data, demand participation in all phases of research, and speak out against flawed conclusions. But because decisions affecting communities like Bayview are often influenced by politics, we can’t allow ourselves to get too distracted by battles over data. Science cannot replace the organizing and advocacy we must continue to do to protect our communities. 

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