Not So Fast, Customs

In response to a citizen—and after Oakland said no to a similar facility—Alameda officials to take a closer look at what’s coming into a facility screening goods for Customs and Border Protection.


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Customs officials check out cargo in Alameda.

Chris Duffey

A concerned citizen has spurred city officials to investigate her complaints that a customs examination station in Alameda is a potential source of hazards ranging from radioactive material to weapons of mass destruction.

The accuser, Irma Garcia-Sinclair, distributed fliers in November stating that Bobac CFS Corp.—the trucking company that runs the examination station in Alameda—may be transporting “weapons of mass destruction, radioactive materials, explosives, and other hazardous material” into the neighborhood.

But Bobac owner Bob Haydari said that while he sympathizes with any concerned residents, he is frustrated because the claims about his facility have no grounding in facts.

“If somebody in my neighborhood told me that a nuclear device was coming into the neighborhood, I’d be concerned, too,” Haydari said. “But this is a lie, and the biggest lie I’ve ever heard in this industry.”

Customs examination stations are privately operated facilities where customs agents intensively screen cargo that arrives at the Port of Oakland. Frank Falcon, a public affairs liaison with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in an email that the agency examines cargo for “trade, agriculture, fraud, and anti-smuggling activities.”

Falcon noted that while his agency’s mission is to interrupt the flow of harmful materials into the country, the agency’s policy prohibits the transportation of hazardous material into outside examination facilities.

“CBP would not permit movement of any container suspected of containing harmful materials,” Falcon said, noting that the agency uses nonintrusive means, such as X-rays, to examine containers before they leave the port. “CBP and all appropriate first responders would mitigate any identified threat prior to movement to any other examination location.”

Garcia-Sinclair is unconvinced by the reassurances. Since November she has repeatedly urged Alameda’s City Council to investigate the Bobac warehouse, at 300 A Ave., for the sake of community safety. The facility has been operating in Alameda for four years, according to Customs.

Alameda City Councilmember Stewart Chen said he has received at least three emails from Garcia-Sinclair expressing concern with the Alameda screening facility. He also said Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft planned an organized tour of the Bobac facility and the Port of Oakland to assuage community fears and Garcia-Sinclair’s concerns, though a date and other details were unavailable at press time in February.
“The council is taking this very seriously,” Chen said. “We are aware, and at this point, we need to do more investigation and research into this matter.”

Garcia-Sinclair’s campaign echoes a similar action that played out late last year in West Oakland. In December, the company running Oakland’s customs examination station at the old army base lost its lease.

Customs awarded the contract to North America 3PL, which was going to establish the examination station in the former Horizon Beverage facility. Before the deal could be finalized, however, Oakland’s city zoning manager ruled against granting zoning clearance for the establishment of such a facility in West Oakland. 3PL has appealed the decision.

Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, said his organization opposed that examination facility because it would operate in conjunction with Customs’ Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team, which allegedly deals with dangerous unknown materials.

“From their very nature, it’s to open containers in which they’re not certain what’s inside,” said Beveridge. “On [CBP’s] website, they emphasize that Customs is a key player in anti-terrorism work. You have to assume that could mean terrorist-related stuff inside containers.”

Rashidah Grinage, director of the Oakland-based community organization PUEBLO, said her organization opposed the establishment of a screening station in a residential neighborhood for similar reasons.
“It’s just unconscionable to allow materials through a residential area when you have no idea what they are,” Grinage said.

Haydari, however, who traced his own experience managing screening warehouses back to 1989, said people unfamiliar with customs examination station operations have a poor understanding of the types of materials that get examined. He pointed out that two years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard asked him to handle a container full of hazardous material, which turned out to be a shipment of ping-pong balls—a potential environmental hazard.

Activists in West Oakland and Alameda also expressed concern that these types of screening facilities increase traffic. Beveridge, who spoke with Customs officials, calculated that trucks would have made 600 to 800 trips in and out of West Oakland each month if the screening center had been established.

Hydari countered that many trucking companies operating out of the Port of Oakland have had to downscale their fleets to meet regulations laid out by the California Air Resource Board, which requires trucks to have a 2006 or more recent engine model to be able to enter the port. That means fewer trucks.

“As of January 1 of this year, the port of Oakland lost over 800 trucks that can’t go the port any longer,” Haydari said. “A lot of small trucking companies with few trucks just closed shop.”

A 2012 study by the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley revealed that diesel emissions from trucks at the port have been reduced by 50 percent since 2008. Haydari credited the environmental controls with cutting down the volume of trucking.

Garcia-Sinclair said she is planning to launch another community activism campaign to raise awareness of the alleged environmental issues surrounding the Alameda station.

“My main concern is the welfare of my environment and my community,” Garcia-Sinclair said. “Even if it’s one tiny percent of a possibility, it still worries me.”

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