The Oakland A’s moved their team offices in 2017 from the dank, concrete confines of the Coliseum Complex to swank, modern accommodations on the waterfront near Jack London Square, west of downtown and not far from the spot where they plan to build a new ballpark.
Since then, the area has continued to grow with coffee shops, trendy restaurants and a signature farmers market, but there’s been a big problem. Just about half-a-mile to the south, A’s personnel can see and smell toxic fires—at least seven since 2009 and one as recently as June—burning on the property of Schnitzer Steel Industries.
Schnitzer is a metal-shredding operation that the A’s say, in a recently filed a civil lawsuit against a California state agency, “unlawfully pollutes West Oakland.”
“There’s been five fires there in the last few years [since we moved in], and we can see them from my window or the patio of our office,” A’s president Dave Kaval recently told Sportico. “Those are well-known in the community. People can see the plumes of smoke cutting across the Oakland skyline. There are 22,000 mostly low-income people, who live within a mile. That’s a lot of people.”
Kaval says the A’s have been forced to evacuate their offices on occasion because of the fires.
To be clear, the A’s aren’t suing Schnitzer in the state Superior Court of Alameda County. They are trying to force the California Dept. of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) to comply with a six-year-old state bill that requires the agency to hold Schnitzer and other metal-shredding businesses to California’s Hazard Waste Law and create a toxic-free environment in the way they operate. The ballclub wants to avert an even more catastrophic and devastating event in the neighborhood.
Because of their environmental studies regarding the new ballpark project just to the north, the A’s discovered that crushed metal particles from pulverized cars—among other items—have caused pollution in the soil and seeped toxic elements into the San Francisco Bay, according to the lawsuit. Had it not been for the ballpark project, the A’s never would’ve uncovered the long-standing violations.
“We wouldn’t have; there’s no doubt about it,” Kaval said.
Aside from the fires, the A’s say that Schnitzer’s proximity to the Howard Terminal, a moribund port where pineapples were once off-loaded from Hawaiian cargo ships, has had an environmental impact on a parcel of land where they hope to build a ballpark village at a cost of more than $2 billion. The A’s are seeking legal costs and that the DTSC enforce California’s Hazardous Waste Laws as a result of the lawsuit.
It should be noted that in March, Schnitzer joined three trade associations that filed a lawsuit in the same Superior Court, alleging the law allowing fast-track certification of the Howard Terminal site being used by Governor Gavin Newsom had expired. That litigation is still pending.
But Kaval said the ballclub’s motives are simple.
“We just want to be good citizens,” he said. “We felt compelled to take action, for our community, for our business, our staff and employees—who all work and live in the area—and help people understand how a professional sports franchise can be an important catalyst for change.”
And for good reason. Among other historic artifacts in the lobby of the club’s offices are the four World Series trophies it has won since the ballclub moved from Kansas City to the San Francisco Bay Area and Coliseum in 1968—three in a row from 1972-74 and the other in 1989, the earthquake-torn sweep of the cross-bay rival San Francisco Giants.
The A’s move from the Coliseum was pragmatic as well as symbolic, since they had already embarked on the required process of building their prospective ballpark with numerous local and state government agencies. Kaval still wants to break ground soon with a debut of the new 32,000-seat yard at the earliest by 2023.
The A’s also want to put heft into their motto, “Rooted in Oakland.” And with the departure of the Golden State Warriors to a new $1.6 billion basketball arena in San Francisco, and the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas and a $1.84 billion football palace, the A’s are the only professional sports team left in the East Bay. This time, the Warriors and Raiders are not coming back. The A’s, whose owner, John Fisher, is worth $3.3 billion, are not leaving.
When they discovered the roots of Schnitzer’s actions, A’s officials and attorneys sat down with members of DTSC and asked the entity to follow state legislation passed in 2014 and rescind exemptions allowing Schnitzer to ignore state environmental laws. The A’s are seeking a clean up of the property, that Schnitzer cease and desist from the cause of the fires, and stop leeching toxic elements into land and water. That was 18 months ago, and the agency has yet to respond.
“We had a meeting with them, and since then haven’t received any correspondence at all,” Kaval said. “We just wanted to ensure the laws were followed and enforced.”
DTSC is not autonomous. It is a subset of the California Environmental Protection Agency and thus subject to state laws and rules. But according to a two-year-old draft investigative document provided by DTSC, the entity is acting like it is.
When asked about the A’s complaint that DTSC hasn’t complied with state environmental laws, Gamaliel Ortiz, the agency’s public info officer, supplied only a brief statement, which read in part: “DTSC cannot comment on pending litigation, but it is deeply committed to protecting Californians and the environment from toxic harm.” His supervisor didn’t respond to direct questions.
The 2018 investigative report states that Schnitzer has caused numerous environmental violations on and away from their property, but concludes that while the company is been made aware of those findings, DTSC is still weighing its actions.
This draft report is cited throughout the A’s complaint. Kaval said he isn’t aware of a final report, and certainly there haven’t been any repercussions, which is why the A’s filed the lawsuit.
Pending a catastrophic event, DTHS had 30 days to respond from Aug. 5, the date the lawsuit was filed.