Toxic Nightmare in East Oakland

Revolutionary Worker #930, November 2, 1997

On September 30, men completely covered in white suits and boots, wearing gas masks and looking like they stepped out of the movie Outbreak, entered a factory in a small Black and Latino community in East Oakland. Police evacuated people from between 150 and 200 homes and took them to a nearby elementary school and recreation area. Yellow tape ringed the area and residents were not allowed back until the next day. At least 15 people were taken to hospitals complaining of headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, and watery eyes.

Earlier in the day, California state inspectors discovered that 1,500 gallons of hydrochloric acid had leaked from a 1,750 gallon vat at K & L Plating Company. The acid had spilled over a concrete divider and was eating away at the concrete blocks that supported four open vats of cyanide.

By themselves, both hydrochloric acid and sodium cyanide are extremely hazardous with the potential to kill. Concentrated hydrochloric acid vapors can severely burn the mouth, throat, lungs, and eyes. It can also cause respiratory failure. Sodium cyanide is even more poisonous--as little as 50 milligrams of sodium cyanide can cause immediate collapse and death. When the two are mixed a highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas cloud will form, capable of instantly killing whoever inhales it. Hydrogen cyanide is the same chemical that was used in California's gas chamber.

The Oakland Tribune reported that a computer projection by the Fire Department estimated that the acid and cyanide in the factory could have formed a deadly gas cloud one half mile long and 50 to 75 yards wide. An aide to an Oakland councilman said, "We had a potential Bhopal," comparing the potential disaster with the 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in India that killed an estimated 5,000 people.

The RW visited the community shortly after the spill and almost everyone complained of health problems linked to the accident. A young man said, "I felt like I was coming down with the flu or something. I've had mucous-buildup. I'm coughing a lot. When I wake up there is a burning sensation in my lungs. When I left the area I felt better. My eyes still hurt."

"My eyes are still burning, my nose is running. I have difficulty breathing. There's a lot of things happening to me that haven't been happening before," an 89-year-old Black woman who had to be taken to a hospital after the spill told the RW. Earlier she told a local newspaper that she had been smelling strange smells for several days. "First it smelled like spoiled meat, then sort of like gasoline."

A man in his 20s was working on a car in front of his house. "My sinuses were burning, I got dizzy, I didn't know what the heck was going on," he said. "I've never felt like that before."

A 69-year-old woman complained of serious health problems and said that some of her prized roses were dying. "I have roses out there and you could see something white settling on the leaves of the green roses. I do not feel the same and I had no health problems before this."


The K & L plant's owner, Robert McSkimming, has a long history of safety and environmental violations.

On September 25, 1993, Victor Martinez, who was hired by K & L Plating only four days earlier, was told to climb into a 700-gallon vat containing cyanide sludge. He collapsed after being overcome by fumes. Ramon Romero, climbed inside the vat and rescued Victor but collapsed himself. Ramon, a father of 12, died in the vat of toxic sludge. Other plant workers had to tilt the 8-foot-high vat, which contained a mixture of sodium cyanide, zinc cyanide, sodium hydroxide, and hydrochloric acid to get Ramon's body out. Seventeen people were hospitalized after breathing the poisonous fumes.

Victor, Ramon, and all the workers present lacked protective gear, even though it is required by law. The company was eventually fined $741,000 by the state, following an investigation into Ramon's death. McSkimming and a company foreman are facing involuntary manslaughter charges in a case which is scheduled for trial in November.

In 1991, K & L was fined $1,000 for 38 violations of state toxic regulations. In 1993, K & L was fined $13,577 for dumping hazardous material in a sewer. Storm drain samples in 1993 revealed hazardous waste being dumped by the company. Similar samples showing toxic dumping were also found this year.

In 1994, McSkimming was sued by former employees for making them work in an unsafe environment that was making them sick. McSkimming was also accused of not carrying worker's compensation insurance for his employees, and for falsifying payroll records. Despite this long history of flagrant violations, K & L Plating was allowed to remain in business until September 19 of this year, when it was taken over by California's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It was the state EPA which was responsible for the facility when the latest spill occurred. On Friday, September 26, inspectors found a small leak in a hydrochloric acid vat but chose to ignore it. The state inspectors returned on Monday, September 29 and again noticed hydrochloric acid leaking on the floor, but again did nothing about it. It wasn't until Tuesday, when the leak turned into a major spill, that local officials were alerted and any action was taken.

There is intense anger in the community at how the state regulators handled the spill. A retired plumber who owns a home in the area told the RW, "The EPA has a problem. They knew there was a spill and they didn't do nothing about it. They should have notified the city. And it shouldn't have taken them a day to come out and check this problem." He told the RW that after the state sealed off the plant he asked the EPA officials what was going on and they told him it was "confidential information."

Another resident the RW talked with was also angry at the EPA for keeping the community in the dark. "They had men walking around out there. They didn't tell us anything. They didn't tell us what danger we were in. We were sitting on a time bomb and we didn't even know."


This latest spill is one of several at electro-plating facilities in the east San Francisco Bay in the last five years. It is an outrage that these highly dangerous companies are allowed to operate in residential areas.

On August 22, 1992, a brown cloud spewed out of Electro Forming Company on Nevin Ave. in Richmond, a small city north of Oakland, and into the nearby residential areas. A leaking vat of nitric acid reacted with the building's concrete floors to produce deadly nitric oxide gas. Nitric oxide attacks the mucous membranes and will burn exposed skin and eyes. 100 people reported to hospitals after the spill. Like the community that surrounded K & L Plating in East Oakland, the community surrounding the Electro Forming Plant was mainly Black and Latino.

On November 18, 1992, a fire at Francis Plating on 7th Street in West Oakland released a plume of toxic fumes into the air. A freeway and city streets were closed. The plant that burned contained vats of cyanide-based compounds, nitric and other acids, and chromium. Firefighters battling the blaze washed the toxic chemicals down storm drains where they flowed directly to the estuary. The entire estuary had to be closed because officials feared that boats would stir up the chemicals and create a toxic gas cloud. West Oakland is a poor and mainly Black community.


"There's always smells. It almost makes you want to vomit when you go by the factory down the block. They pump it all into the air. It gets so thick you can't breathe sometimes."

Young Black man who lives in the community around K & L Company

Factories ring the small community in East Oakland and residents talk about living with strange smells and odors and the fear of not knowing the health effects of the air they breath and the water they drink. People are especially concerned about the impact on elderly people and children.

This is not the first time hazardous waste crews have had to come into the community. Residents remember at least two other times in the last few years that portions of the community had to be sealed off. "There was a factory on this corner right here, right behind the house," a woman who has lived in the community for 21 years told the RW. "The factory preserved dead people's bodies. That's the first time I remember them coming out and blocking off the area. He was putting his whatever down into the city's sewers. You could smell whatever these people were using all the time just like we were smelling this. But you didn't know where it was coming from."

Several residents blame the toxic environment for the deaths of loved ones. "I really believe it was part of my husband's death," an elderly Black woman told the RW. "His nose would run and he would be sneezing. He couldn't blow his nose. When he'd blow his nose it would start bleeding and he would have to go to the hospital. This has been going on way too long. They need to do something about it."

The woman who had lived in the community for 21 years said, "My sister died, her room was right in the back [closest to the factories] and from her room you could smell it strong, strong, strong. On her autopsy the doctor told us she was all mushy on the inside."

At nearby Verdese Carter Park on Bancroft Ave. there is a park and a playground that was built on the site of a battery manufacturing plant. In 1993, residents discovered a yellow substance oozing from the cracks of the basketball court where children play.

In East Oakland, community groups and environmentalists are also battling to have a medical waste incinerator removed from a residential neighborhood on High Street. This is the only commercial medical waste incinerator in California and it handles medical waste from 3,000 hospitals, medical offices and labs. The plant releases numerous pollutants including dioxin, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, birth defects, and other heath problems. Since 1990, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the facility has been cited for at least 164 violations. Company officials will not even disclose how much material is burned at the facility.

Many people in this East Oakland neighborhood are coming to the conclusion that the system values factories spewing out toxic waste and poisoning the community more than their lives and the lives of their children and elders. A woman whose backyard is just a few feet from K & L told the RW that she didn't feel that these types of companies should exist in residential areas. "They don't care. They should have bulldozed it down in the first place. It shouldn't have been out here in this area simply because it is a heath hazard. It is dangerous and they never warned us."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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