CITY OF OAKLAND and Alameda County records show AB&I Foundry, a factory that has operated in East Oakland since 1906, gave more than $20,000 to the campaigns of local political candidates this year despite plans to close the plant and move the business to Texas.
AB&I’s Birmingham, Alabama-based parent company McWane Inc. announced in March that it would shutter the Oakland operation and move within a year.
Since that time, AB&I has made a series of donations to local political campaigns, including $16,000 to Alameda County District 1 Supervisor David Haubert’s 2024 reelection campaign, $2,500 to Rebecca Kaplan’s current campaign to become Alameda County District 3’s supervisor, and $900 each for Loren Taylor and Ignacio De La Fuente’s current Oakland mayoral campaigns.
De La Fuente’s campaign also received donations from people closely associated with the company. AB&I general manager, Michael Lowe, donated $900, while Allan Boscacci, the grandson of AB&I’s founder, donated $10,000 to Californians for Safer Streets, a political action committee that is supporting De La Fuente.
There is no indication the campaign donations were illegal, and the local politicians whose campaigns received them either declined to discuss the gifts or said that they were proper as McWane just wants to support a community where it has long done business.
There has been previous controversy involving political contributions from the company. In 2016 the California Fair Political Practices Commission penalized McWane Inc and AB&I Foundry $100,000, and Oakland’s Ethics Commission penalized the company $14,400 for illegally laundered political donations. A press release from the CFPPC at the time stated that the case involved “37 laundered campaign contributions (totaling $23,900) from AB&I through 17 officers/employees (and their spouses) to four Oakland mayoral candidates and two City Council candidates from 2012 through 2014.” McWane is also currently the defendant in two different lawsuits related to pollution, one from a nonprofit called Communities for a Better Environment, and another from the State of California.
Tyler Earl, a staff attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, questioned why McWane is still making donations as it exits the Bay Area. The company is not currently facing penalties from the city or the county, but Earl said McWane might be donating to dissuade politicians from seeking them.
“Since they’re still donating as they’re packing up to leave,” said Earl, “I imagine they don’t want the city or county to come after them for past violations.”
In Oakland, a mayor has the power to encourage or discourage staff from pursuing individuals or companies through public works citations or code enforcement penalties. A mayor also can ask, though not require, the City Attorney to file lawsuits. Additionally, Bay Area council members, mayors and county supervisors can serve on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board, an entity that has the power to fine companies like McWane. Kaplan has served on this board in the past, and Haubert is currently serving.
Laura Clark, McWane’s director of corporate communications, wrote in an email that, even as AB&I is leaving town, McWane continues to want to support “leaders who recognize the value and importance of businesses that provide well-paying and rewarding jobs.”
Seeking civil penalties
Both lawsuits had already been filed when McWane announced AB&I’s relocation. Communities for a Better Environment sued McWane in December of last year, while Attorney General Rob Bonta and Deputy Attorney General Erin Ganahl filed their complaint for the State of California in February of this year. The lawsuits are similar. They both seek civil penalties from McWane for breaking state law by failing to inform members of the surrounding community, who are mostly low-income Latinx and/or African American residents, about the release of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical, into the air. Both lawsuits also stressed that 10 schools sit within a mile of the site.
Clark disagreed with the claims made in the lawsuits and stated McWane has been following the law.
“We believe we are, and always have been, operating in full compliance,” Clark wrote in an email. “We will be cooperating fully to demonstrate this compliance.”
There are warnings posted on an AB&I entrance informing people that entering the facility “can expose you to chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Such warnings under Proposition 65 are not uncommon at many places in California, including gas stations. But the lawsuits insist the hexavalent chromium AB&I releases also pose a risk to the surrounding community, and they allege McWane has been failing to meet its legal obligation to directly inform nearby residents about the chemical every three months, either electronically or through standard mail.
“These people have been, and continue to be, exposed to hexavalent chromium without any knowledge that they are being exposed to this very dangerous chemical,” Bonta and Ganahl wrote in the state’s complaint, “knowledge that could enable them to take steps to protect themselves.”
Haubert had no comment on receiving the donations despite multiple calls and emails to him and his chief of staff. Kaplan sent an email touting the work she’s done to address air pollution, but failed to reply to any questions about the AB&I contributions. When asked why he accepted contributions from AB&I, Oakland mayoral candidate Loren Taylor said he feels donations he accepts simply express confidence in his leadership.
“At least for me, contributions for campaigns are not an exchange of value, and there’s no quid pro quo,” Taylor said.
Taylor also voiced his belief that environmental concerns related to AB&I will be solved by AB&I leaving town.
“I know that environmental concerns have been elevated by community members,” said Taylor, “but it seems as though that will no longer be an issue since the company plans to stop operating in East Oakland.”
But even as AB&I is set to leave town, some people are not happy with how McWane is handing the site on which AB&I sits.
Alameda County Assessor records show McWane has sold the AB&I land to Duke Realty. In an application to the city of Oakland in March, Jason Bernstein, Duke vice president of development, proposed to construct buildings on the site with stalls for truck trailers and containers. Esther Goolsby, a resident who lives near the site and an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, told a local news organization that the new site could bring increased freight truck trips to the area, which in turn could cause more diesel to be released into the air.
Rupa Mayra, a physician who lives a few miles from the site, started reporting AB&I to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 2017 after she said there were unpleasant odors emanating from the facility causing her to worry about what they could be doing to people’s health. In an interview, she said she’s unhappy that the facility is still operating and concerned about how she thinks they will exit.
“I am concerned about the clean-up at the site and the people who live around there being exposed to more toxicity,” Mayra said.
Clark, of McWane, told Local News Matters that it plans to move AB&I from Oakland “by the end of January 2023,” and that, while doing so, the company plans to follow the laws that govern such an exit.
“AB&I will perform all applicable facility closure work in accordance with California’s strict environmental standards and under the oversight of various regulatory authorities,” wrote Clark in an email.
A ‘bittersweet’ departure
Earl, the lawyer with Communities for a Better Environment, called McWane’s plans to move AB&I “bittersweet.”
“It’s good that they’re leaving town,” said Earl. “But they’re doing it on their terms and as far as it appears to us, it’s still being done without any accountability to the community that’s paid the cost of them doing business.”
According to Attorney General Rob Bonta, even though the company is leaving town, McWane still has a responsibility to the surrounding community’s residents.
An email from Bonta’s press office states that the decision to leave town “will prevent future emissions of toxic chemicals into the East Oakland community” but that “McWane remains subject to liability for previous and ongoing emissions of hexavalent chromium without a warning.”
Ignacio De La Fuente, another Oakland mayor candidate, said AB&I is donating to political campaigns like his and continuing to be involved in the local community because the company cares about it. AB&I press releases show it has hosted community events, cleanups, and partnered with local churches for food giveaways.
“I think they’re just continuing to care about Oakland because they have been here for a long time,” De La Fuente said. “It’s no surprise that they continue to participate in the political process and to work with our community.”
“They’ve polluted the air; they’ve polluted the politics. That’s par for the course with McWane.”Tyler Earl, attorney with Communities for a Better Environment
De La Fuente has a long history with AB&I. He was the vice president of Molders, Pottery, Plastics, and Allied Workers International AFL-CIO, a union that represents many AB&I workers, for 36 years. He says AB&I has benefited those in the surrounding area by providing well-paying blue collar union jobs.
“Oakland must have a diverse business base that provides jobs for the diverse populations that we represent,” said De La Fuente. “Not all of us have masters in political science or are lawyers or doctors.”
Clark, the spokesperson for McWane, wrote that AB&I “supports hundreds of families in the Oakland community” but did not respond when asked for an exact count of AB&I workers who live in Oakland. An AB&I press release from 2019 stated that the factory employs more than 200 workers, 37 percent of whom reside in Oakland.
Pointing to pollution and past illegal political contributions, Earl remains critical of what McWane, which took over ownership of AB&I in 2006, does to the community. Communities for a Better Environment’s complaint against McWane, which Earl helped write, states that “AB&I is the largest emitter of hexavalent chromium in Oakland,” and it states that the facility emits “56 different chemicals listed as Toxic Air Contaminants.” While addressing the illegally laundered contributions, the complaint states that some elected officials who received them “have prominently supported AB&I.”
“They’ve polluted the air; they’ve polluted the politics,” said Earl. “That’s par for the course with McWane.”
The 2016 penalties were levied for illegal donations that included $6,300 to De La Fuente’s 2012 City Council campaign and $4,600 for Kaplan’s 2014 Oakland Mayor campaign, as well as two other candidates. Neither De La Fuente nor Kaplan was penalized for accepting the donations. De La Fuente said AB&I has always tried its best to donate to campaigns in an ethical manner.
“I believe AB&I has always acted in good faith,” De La Fuente said about the incident. “Oakland is not an easy city to stay within the rules of the game.”