A mile away from the Oakland Army base on Monday night, Reverend Ken Chambers and Reverend Will Scott welcomed a small group of people to West Side Missionary Baptist Church, including pastors from different congregations and residents of various faiths. Their goal was to inform them of what they can do to stop coal from passing through Oakland.
“There are 650 congregations in our network, 40 right here in Oakland, who care about climate change, who care about air quality, who care about this community and want to back you up and your effort to stop coal from being exported here,” said Scott, program director of California Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based organization that involves churches in environmental issues. “It’s really quite sad that there are people in this community who are being pressured by money, by powerful interests, to say yes” to coal, he continued.
Over 50 people of faith, including religious leaders, from Oakland have signed a letter urging Mayor Libby Schaaf and the city council to reject the plan to export coal from the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal, located at the old Army base. The letter was presented to them during the city council meeting on October 20.
The letter, which was written by members of California Interfaith Power and Light, states that the transportation of coal will pollute air and water quality in West Oakland. “The religious community around the world is calling on all of us to transition to a carbon neutral future,” the letter states. It points to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, which urged people to care about the environment, as an example, and to Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist communities that have also published declarations demanding that the world end the burning of fossil fuels.
Earlier this year, four Utah counties invested $53 million in developing a cargo facility, the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal, in West Oakland. Coal would be transported to Oakland from Utah by train, and then exported to Asia.
In 2012, the city entered a development agreement to restore the former Army base, where the terminal is located, with California Capital and Investment Group, headed by developer Phil Tagami. Later, the development of the facility itself was subleased to Terminal Logistics Solutions headed by Jerry Bridges, former executive director of the Port of Oakland.
The development has caused heated discourse at recent city council meetings. Opponents say they are not against the facility, but rather against transporting coal as a commodity, because it will contribute to pollution and negatively impact residents’ health. Supporters say the facility and transportation of coal will bring in more jobs. Religious leaders have spoken up at public hearings on both sides of the issue.
Chambers is one of the religious leaders who signed the letter asking the city to keep coal out of Oakland. He said he is concerned that the health of residents who suffer from asthma and cancer might worsen if the transportation of coal is permitted. “It is an industry that’s dying and taking people with it,” Chambers said.
Reverend Ben Daniel of Montclair Presbyterian, who also signed the letter, said by phone that he does not want Oakland to contribute to global climate change. “I don’t want the city to be a link in the chain that connects the environmental degradation in the United States with the health effects of air pollution and global warming in Asia,” he said.
But not all local religious leaders oppose the project. At the first public hearing at City Hall on September 21, Pastor Kevin Barnes from Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and Pastor Kevin Hope from Acts Full Gospel Church said they support the facility because it would bring in more jobs.
“I think that Terminal Logistics Solutions, what they have brought to the table, they’ve done more than what is diligent to minimize the liabilities that come with transporting coal,” said Hope at the public hearing. Some people on the opposition side chanted, “Jobs, but no coal!” after Hope’s comment.
At that same hearing, Barnes said that the facility would give hope to young men without jobs. “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.
Barnes and Hope did not respond to requests from Oakland North for further comment on their positions regarding the terminal.
In September, the East Bay Express reported that Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) had accused Jerry Bridges of Terminal Logistics Solutions of offering several churches money and access to a community fund in exchange for supporting the project. The paper also alleged that Bridges and a colleague offered money to two members of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project in return for their support, suggesting that the money could be used for a community fund, but the environmental organizers declined. The article did not name any pastors who had allegedly been approached with offers or accepted any money. Bridges did not return requests for comment.
At the meeting on Monday, Chambers said developers promised some faith-based organizations $750,000 in total to be distributed to the community for its benefit. Chambers said he knows of 13 pastors in Oakland who were offered money to support coal.
“I would encourage any pastor that has stood forward to support coal coming into Oakland and think they are getting some kind of fund that’s going to help them to support their ministry in some way or another, with the illusion that it’s going to create a whole bunch of jobs, to rethink that and search their heart and do the right thing,” Chambers said before the meeting.
He said developers never approached him asking for support.
Mayor Libby Schaaf could not be reached for comment regarding the letter from California Interfaith Power and Light, but Assistant City Administrator Christine Daniel released a statement via email that read: “At this time, staff is evaluating all of the information submitted and will be providing an update to the City Council once the analyses are completed.”
At West Side Missionary Baptist Church on Monday, the attendees strategized about calling city council members and reaching out to parents with children at local schools to ask them for their support by also and showing up to the city council meeting when the matter will be discussed. At the city council meeting on Tuesday, the council postponed the final decision date on the issue from December 8 to February 16 to further review reports regarding the effects of coal.
“Sometimes it’s the small and faithful that at the end of the day bring down the big coal,” Scott said. “It’s troubling that its gotten this far, that we have to go to this length of organizing, to stop it.”