Residents protest cargo screenings

Residents protest cargo screenings

Michele Ellson

Outrage over plans to set up a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol screening facility in the heart of West Oakland appears to have sparked concerns about a similar facility that has long operated on Alameda’s fringe.

Residents are protesting the tentative expansion of cargo screening at a U.S. Customs Examination Station operated by Bobac C.F.S. Corp. at 300 A Avenue; they fear the new cargo to be screened by customs agents there could put Alameda in harm’s way.

“I just want the whole (City) Council to look into it,” said Irma Garcia-Sinclair, an Alameda resident who started a petition drive last week to try to keep the additional freight off-Island.

But both customs and company officials say that hazardous materials won’t be shipped to the Bobac facility.

“No cargo deemed hazardous by (Customs and Border Patrol) is moved to a (Customs Examination Station) for examination,” Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Jaime Ruiz said in response to e-mailed questions from a reporter Monday.

The customs service contracts with private operators to provide facilities where agents can screen suspect cargo, and Bobac has served as a site for trade inspections since 2000, providing a place for agents to check for contraband like counterfeit purses.

Cargo screened by Customs and Border Patrol’s Anti-Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team had gone to a warehouse on the Oakland Army Base for screening; that company apparently lost its contract but is protesting the loss. Contracts to house those screenings were tentatively awarded to Bobac and a second company operating in West Oakland; as of late August, all of exams that had been conducted by the former contractor are now coming to the Island, documents show.

West Oakland residents are fighting the decision to set up a cargo exam station there, saying they fear something hazardous could end up in their midst. And after fighting for years to eliminate pollution from truck traffic, they don’t want more, said Margaret Gordon of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project.

Gordon said “there’s no way you could know” if cargo shipped into the exam stations contains hazardous material.

“You don’t know what’s going on until you open it up,” she said.

Garcia-Sinclair said she learned about Alameda station when she was in Oakland a few weeks ago and people there asked her to sign a petition to stop the exam station from being set up there. If plans to send cargo there will are scuttled, she’s concerned that all of the additional screenings will be conducted here permanently.

But both the customs spokesman, Ruiz, and a Bobac official said residents here have nothing to fear. Ruiz said “high risk examinations” are not conducted at exam stations like the one in Alameda. He said the service looks for “anything” illegally imported into or out of the United States but did not elaborate on what the team is seeking in the exams.

Bobac’s chief executive officer, Bob Haydari, didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday. But in an e-mail to the city, Vice President Jackie Bertrand said the anti-terrorism team is typically “looking for contraband mostly aligned with same commodities as Trade looks at” – which is “usually trademark violations” but “can encompass almost all imported products.”

The letter, which accused representatives of the Oakland company that lost its contract of spreading “falsehoods” and engaging in “scare tactics” following that loss, said there have been “no issues” with any of the cargo agents have examined in Alameda over the past 13 years.

“The dirt sitting in front of our warehouse and our warehouse itself is more hazardous than any cargo that U.S. Customs has deemed for inspections,” Bertrand wrote.

The petition drive and fliers being handed out at the new Alameda Target store – which is near Bobac’s headquarters – ignited the ire of City Hall, which issued a press release last week headlined “Stupid Flier & Facebook Page Aimed at Scaring West Alameda.”

“A small group of people are gathering petition signatures in front of the new Target store to fight the US Customs Examination Station from coming to, apparently, West Oakland. It appears that they are purposely misleading Alamedans in order to get signatures by asserting that the Station is coming to Alameda, next to the Target store,” the release said. “Neither the flier nor the Facebook page has any attribution. Whoever is behind this effort clearly does not believe in accuracy, facts, or truth.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who, like Alameda City Council members, was pictured in the flyer, is trying to arrange a meeting between customs officials and West Oakland community stakeholders who are protesting the exam station there, Lee’s spokeswoman said.

Garcia-Sinclair said she’s just an activist who is “very environmentally sensitive and committed to Earth.”

“That was so mean,” she said of the release.


Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Tue, Nov 5, 2013

“Stupid Flier & Facebook Page Aimed at Scaring West Alameda.”

That is not an acceptable government press release. It sounds like something from a middle-school social media post. Also, the swaggering tone of the press release regarding the recent legal victory over the former Fire Chief seemed too much like spiking the football in the end zone. One would expect City leadership to use a more civil tone in order to avoid an escalation in community rhetoric.

These press releases do not add long term value to our community and there needs to be a process for review before they are issued.