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Toxic sea level rise threatens a West Oakland community

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Now to Northern California and the threat one community of color faces because of rising sea levels. KQED climate reporter Ezra David Romero takes us to West Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those rising sea levels make residents there vulnerable to flooding and to toxins that have long polluted surrounding areas. And residents say protecting them from that threat, or what's known as climate justice, is a form of reparations.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Thousands of people live in West Oakland, a bridge away from San Francisco, boxed in by freeways, a port and numerous industries. Margaret Gordon shows me around the northern edge of the neighborhood.

So where are we going to go?

MARGARET GORDON: OK. We're going to go over the overpass.

ROMERO: We pass charcoal-gray and white condominiums about a half mile from San Francisco Bay. As seas continue to rise. Gordon, who founded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, foresees a looming disaster.

GORDON: These will be the first victims of a sea level rise.

ROMERO: And not only from surface flooding. Between these homes and the bay are hazardous sites like an old army base contaminated with petroleum and other chemicals. That contamination can move around as water under the ground rises.

GORDON: Those toxic soils will be a hindrance to the community.

KRISTINA HILL: There are going to be surprises, and they're going to be real health risks.

ROMERO: Kristina Hill directs the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley. Rising seas move inland on top of the land and underneath it.

HILL: The seawater actually comes under the land, almost like it's sticking its toe under the freshwater.

ROMERO: That seawater pushes the freshwater up, where it can mix with contamination. As the pollution loosens, it can release poisonous gases in and around sewer and water pipes.

HILL: The gas can enter buildings, workplaces, schools and homes through cracks in the concrete slab foundation.

ROMERO: Across West Oakland, there are more than 130 active toxic sites. West Oakland grew up as an industrial powerhouse some 150 years ago when the transcontinental railroad ended its long journey here. Over time, shipbuilding, metal foundries, auto yards and dry cleaners filled this corner of Oakland. Racist home lending policies like redlining relegated Black people to this neighborhood.

DOROTHY LAZARD: It is a lesson in discrimination and disregard and diminishment of a population that is helping build a city.

ROMERO: Dorothy Lazard grew up in West Oakland. She retired two years ago as the managing librarian of the Oakland History Center. Lazard said the policy of eminent domain decimated Black neighborhoods and business districts, allowing governments to seize land and destroy homes, to build freeways and a commuter train line.

LAZARD: Claiming eminent domain is, to me, kind of commensurate to colonialism. You know, it's kind of like we can use this as our dumping ground because we've already devalued this space.

ROMERO: Lazard says racist policies exposed residents to life-threatening environmental pollution without their consent.

LAZARD: Those impulses are still there.

ROMERO: Margaret Gordon sits on a park bench in front of her apartment as semi trucks crawl the street and a commuter train zips by. She tells me climate justice must mean reparations.

GORDON: To me, the reparation movement is the next level of civil rights.

ROMERO: For Gordon, reparations mean more than payment to the descendants of slaves. They mean actions that restore consent to the community, like cleaning up toxic sites, economic opportunities and power and planning decisions about climate resilience.

GORDON: We would have long-standing sustainability. I would know that there's going to be housing for my children, grandchildren. There's going to be a job for them.

OLUFEMI TAIWO: Climate change and reparations in terms of a response to the history of racial injustice have the same roots.

ROMERO: Olufemi Taiwo is an associate professor at Georgetown University. He's the author of the book "Reconsidering Reparations" with a chapter on climate reparations.

TAIWO: Even if you didn't buy the historical story about why reparations and climate crisis are linked, there is a straightforward, practical story of if you want to actually change who faces what level of death, disease and displacement, this is something that you should pay attention to.

ROMERO: He says climate justice and reparations are the same project. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in West Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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