Oakland's coal war pits economic survival against environmental justice

The Guardian
April 21, 2016
By: Maria L La Ganga

Margaret Gordon will not get out of the car. She is in the shadow of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge on a triangle of land where a bustling maritime terminal is planned.

“The pollution is too bad,” the 70-something activist declares, and the terminal isn’t even built yet. She rummages through her purse for an inhaler. “I got a sore throat. I have allergy attacks … See the crane operating over there? All that’s going to be OBOT.”

Formally known as the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, OBOT will be able to handle up to 15,000 different commodities when it opens in early 2019 on the site of a decommissioned army base. But only one of them – coal – is forcing a tense showdown from Oakland city hall to the California capitol, a fight with echoes along the west coast and implications around the globe.

Environmentalists refer to California, Oregon and Washington state as “the thin green line”, a barrier they hope will prevent coal from being exported to more polluting countries in Asia.

At stake in the Oakland fight are, on the one hand, the city’s green reputation, California’s standing as an international climate leader and the west coast’s very sense of itself. And on the other? The survival of a struggling industry and much-needed local jobs that pay a living wage.

There’s a visceral, almost existential rejection of the idea that we will be a superhighway for coal and oil

Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline Institute

“The west coast doesn’t see itself as suppliers of coal and oil and gas to the world,” said Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability thinktank. “We see ourselves as innovators and environmental leaders. There’s a visceral, almost existential rejection of the idea that we will be a superhighway for coal and oil.”

Oakland is one of seven marine terminals that US coal producers would like to use to transport their wares to Asia. The proposals – four in Oregon, two in Washington state and one in California – cropped up after the domestic market for coal plummeted about five years ago.

Benchmark Australian coal prices have dropped from $132 per ton to $52 since January 2011. Fifty coal companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since 2012, including the two largest in the US. Arch Coal filed in January, followed by Peabody Energy earlier this month.

Coal producers decry a “war on coal” beyond the economic drubbing. To some extent they are right. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have launched anti-coal campaigns, drumming up local support to shut the terminal proposals down.

Legislatures from Canada to Mexico have enacted new regulations to move their energy supplies away from coal. In October, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed Senate Bill 185, requiring the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to sell their holdings in coal-producing companies.

At the moment, the Oakland battle is the most heated of the west coast terminal fights. The four Oregon proposals are off the table for a variety of reasons, De Place said. On 29 April, the clash will intensify over a terminal in Longview, Washington, when a draft environmental impact statement is released.

Betsy Monseu, chief executive of the American Coal Council, said her industry is deeply concerned about “a piling on of regulations that won’t have any benefit and will have an extreme level of implications – for the economy, for electricity prices, for American families”. She declined to comment on any west coast terminal fight, but said that, if necessary, there are ways to move coal other than through Washington, Oregon and California. If “the price levels supported it, then those coals would move”, she said.

In some ways, the fight over Oakland’s marine terminal is intensely local, a kind of he-said-she-said fight between city government and the terminal’s creators with little agreement on even fundamental matters, such as whether coal will even be processed in Oakland and whether it’s really bad for health.

But even the most local aspects of the proposed terminal have larger implications, pitting economic survival against environmental justice, living-wage jobs against children’s lungs in west Oakland, among the Bay Area’s most downtrodden neighborhoods. No matter who wins, someone will lose.

West Oakland is ringed by freeways and located hard by the busy Port of Oakland, where hundreds of diesel trucks drive in and out all day. Nearly half of its population is African American; 85% are people of color. For the last half-century, at least a fifth of the population has lived in poverty.

The neighborhood is sicker and poorer than nearly any other in Oakland. Its residents on average live 12.4 years less than their wealthier counterparts in the Oakland Hills, according to a 2015 report by the Alameda County public health department. There is more asthma, more lung cancer, more stroke and more congestive heart failure.

Jerry Bridges is president of Terminal Logistics Solutions, the Oakland-based company that will operate the proposed marine bulk commodity terminal. During a recent interview, he flashed drawings of the facility on to the TLS conference room wall and sang its technological praises.

Even if coal is handled there – a big if because of the ailing market, it will not hurt the neighborhood, he said.

Poor communities pay the brunt when it comes to health and safety issues

Noel Gallo, councilman

“All of the commodities coming through the terminal will be in covered rail cars, dumped into enclosed underground units with dust control,” Bridges said. “Bottom line is the products will never see the light of day.”

And then there is what Phil Tagami, developer of the terminal, calls the community benefit.

“This project’s about taking a former military base as a peace dividend and transforming it into a facility that will not only deliver much-needed jobs to Oakland that are good-paying jobs, but it was also about restoring a working waterfront.”

Five of Oakland’s eight city council members did not respond to requests for comment. The three who would discuss the project were uniformly opposed.

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