Three women from Occupella, an activist group that organizes sing-a-longs during protests, harmonized outside Oakland City Hall, singing “Water, wind and solar power, I’m going to let it shine,” to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine,” as people packed into the chambers. “Make Ms. Libby see the light, I’m going to let it shine,” they sang—a reference to Mayor Libby Schaaf and the large number of people who had gathered to protest the transport of coal through the city.
During a public hearing Monday, the Oakland City Council heard testimony on the possible effects of a plan to export coal from a new cargo facility, the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, at the old Army base in West Oakland.
Coal supporters, mostly represented by Laborers Union Local 304, said the plan would bring more jobs to Oakland, while critics, represented by environmentalists, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021, said the plan would not benefit the environment, the city’s economy nor the health of its citizens. Half of the people in the council chambers wore yellow “I support Oakland jobs” shirts, while the other half wore red “Beyond Coal Exports” shirts.
This spring, four Utah counties approved a $53 million deal to invest in the West Oakland cargo facility, planned to open in 2017. The counties would transport coal by train to Oakland and from there ship it to Asia.
The original developer of the facility was California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG), led by president Phil Tagami. In 2014, CCIG subleased the rights of the first phase of the development of the facility to Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS).
Former Mayor Jean Quan was present at the hearing and said Tagami never stated that coal was part of the plan. Quan said this affected the way officials conducted environmental reviews. “This has never been on whether we’re going to do the import station or not,” Quan said. “It is though, about what was promised to the community. The approval process would have been very, very different if Phil Tagami would have said, ‘We’re going to do coal.’”
Greg McConnell, a representative for CCIG, said the project had been properly vetted. “CCIG is in full compliance with all its obligations,” he said. “You will hear that it has gone through two CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] studies.”
Among the opponents at the hearing were environmentalists who said the plan would contribute to global warming, because burning coal in Asia would create greenhouse gases. “Climate change is responsible for sea level rise and drought—all that directly affects Oakland,” said Debbie Niemeier, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California Davis.
Niemeier said she studied the plan and found that the proposed 10.5 million tons of coal set to pass annually through Oakland will create 30 million tons of carbon dioxide, “the size of seven average power plants,” she said.
Niemeier also said that safety measures used while transporting coal, like train car covers and topping agents, are ineffective. “There are no scientifically validated methods to mitigate coal dust,” she said.
Opponents also spoke about the health risks of coal arriving in Oakland. Derrick Muhammad, representing the ILWU Local 10, said coal would affect the predominately African-American neighborhood adjacent to the port, which already has one of the highest asthma rates in Northern California. “We cannot sell our soul for a job,” Muhammad said. “All money ain’t good money.”
Katrina Booker, member of ILWU Local 10, said handling coal at a previous job at the Port of Stockton made her sick. “At the end of the day my eyes were burning,” she said. “I went home and had nose bleeds. It was actually hard to breathe. It feels like you have weights on your chest.”
Booker said nobody is going to take responsibility when workers fall sick. “We’re not saying no to the facility,” Booker said. “We’re just saying no to coal.”
Jerry Bridges, president of TLS and a former executive director of the Port of Oakland, said this is an opportunity for Oakland to show the world how to ship coal safely. “We will operate in a matter that not only meets, but exceeds all industry standards,” he said. “Safety applies to every commodity that will be shipped through this facility.”
McConnell said the facility would create 11,970 jobs and $300 million in annual income. “We’re talking about a bulk commodity terminal that will make Oakland competitive throughout the western United States and world,” McConnell said, referring to the variety of commodities, including coal, the facility will handle.
Pastor Kevin Hope from Acts Full Gospel Church and Pastor Kevin Barnes from Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church were some of the religious leaders present in support of the facility. Barnes said this facility would give hope to people without a job. “I’m not an environmentalist, but I support this project because I believe some jobs can come in—all they’re asking for is a chance,” Barnes said. “We need your help to help us.”
However, some opponents said coal is not an economically viable product. Jasmin Ansar, a professor of economics at Mills College, said the coal industry is in decline due to pollution concerns and cheaper alternatives. She said more than three dozen coal operations have shut down in the last three years in the United States. “The investment of millions of dollars in building a port terminal with the specific sole capability to export millions of tons of coal is a poor investment choice,” Ansar said.
Kathryn Floyd, a lawyer for CCIG, said the city cannot ban the shipment of coal because the city does not have jurisdiction over railways, which are governed federally.
But Jessica Loarie, staff lawyer for the Sierra Club, said the city can still take actions that affect local land. “We are asking the city to not even deal with the rail issue,” Loarie said. “The city can decide on its own land to say ‘We’re going to ban coal.’”
City officials listened comments well after 10 p.m. Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1) motioned to keep the public hearing period ongoing until October 5. Kalb said the deadline for the city’s decision on whether to allow the transport of coal will be no later than December 8.