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Protestors rally to stop Oakland coal shipment project

on September 17, 2018

Developers may have won in court, but opponents of a project that would ship coal through Oakland say that they’re not done fighting. Last week activists put pressure on the bank that is raising money for the rail-to-ship coal terminal, urging the Bank of Montréal, or BMO, to pull out of the investment by demonstrating outside of a conference that one of the bank’s officials was attending in San Francisco.

On Wednesday, a swarm of Oakland residents carrying signs and chanting phrases like “Keep it in the ground!” and “Coal investment’s got to go! Tell it, tell it to the BMO!” showed up outside the Marriott Marquis where the PRI in Person conference was being held. The annual event, which promotes responsible investment, is designed to encourage lending that takes environmental, social and governance factors into consideration.

One of the panelists scheduled to speak at the conference–David Sneyd—is a representative from BMO Global Asset Management. Although activists said he isn’t involved with the department working on the coal deal, they thought it would be helpful to speak with him.

“He’s not in the part of the bank that does that stuff,” said Margaret Rossoff of activist group No Coal in Oakland, “but we’re letting him know, we would like them to pledge to not try to get this money for the coal terminal.”

The proposed Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal would be built on the waterfront at the former Army base next to the Port of Oakland. Coal moving through the terminal via train would be shipped from Utah through Oakland and onto Asia. The project would be developed by California Capital Investment Group (CCIG), which is headed by Oakland developer Phil Tagami.

Activists said that the Bank of Montreal has raised $53 million in public money from four counties in Utah to build the terminal. The deal was brokered by BMO investment banker Jeffrey Holt, former head of the Utah Transportation Commission, according to The Los Angeles Times, which reported that the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board agreed to loan the money to the counties so they could invest in the terminal—originally estimated to cost $250 million.

“They can do whatever they want at their peril,” Ted Franklin, an organizer with No Coal in Oakland, said outside the conference, which was held in conjunction with last week’s Global Climate Action Summit. Franklin said that No Coal in Oakland members don’t think the bank will be able to raise the money if investors know that it is going to a project that local residents oppose.

But Snyed didn’t emerge from the conference during the lunchtime demonstration, and Oakland North’s efforts to reach him for an interview were unsuccessful.

Neither representatives with the developer CCIG nor the Bank of Montreal responded to media inquiries.

Other conference participants did come face to face with the protestors. Although most just passed by, one told Rossoff that she doubted the Bank of Montreal was the only organization at the conference still investing in coal.

Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal entered a deal with the city of Oakland to develop and manage parts of the former Army base in 2013. At the time, Tagami told officials that he had no intention of shipping coal through the terminal, but, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, the deal didn’t prohibit it.

The development agreement gave Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal the right to develop, use and operate the terminal as a “bulk oversized terminal” for 66 years, according to court documents filed by the company. Operations would include the exportation of “non-containerized bulk goods” at the portion of the former Oakland Army Base known as the “West Gateway.”

CCIG went on to sublease the rights to develop and manage part of the base to Terminal Logistics Solutions, a subsidiary of a coal production company from Kentucky. When this information was revealed, environmental groups and Oakland residents put pressure on the city council. After hiring Environmental Science Associates, an independent environmental science and planning firm, to conduct a study on the effects transportation of coal through the city may have on public health, in 2016, the city passed an ordinance banning the handling of coal.

Through his company, Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal, Tagami responded by suing the city for a breach of contract. The coal company, Bowie Resource Partners, paid at least $1.75 million towards Tagami’s suit, according to the East Bay Express.

Tagami’s attorneys argued that the city failed to prove that the terminal would have harmful effects on residents and that its initial determinations were “premature,” according to court documents.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria agreed and ruled in favor of the Oakland Bulk & Oversized Terminal, reasoning that the city did not provide substantial evidence that the proposed coal transportation would be harmful.

The East Bay Express reported that city officials filed an appeal in June, hoping to restore the ban.

But activists are trying other strategies to make sure the terminal doesn’t get built.

Wednesday’s demonstrators said they were also warning investors at the conference not to trust the bank. “If I see anyone with the PRI lanyard, I’m going to stop them,” she said, holding onto a stack of pamphlets.

Between noon and 1:30 p.m., the circle of demonstrators marching back and forth at the entrance of the hotel continued to attract more people, causing the loop to stretch further down Mission Street.  Then suddenly the sound of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” blared from across the street, enlivening the crowd. Get Up Street Theater, a Bay Area flash mob focused on activism, had joined in the fight. Members of the group, wearing ripped white T-shirts with letters from the word “Toxic” written on them in marker, began dancing as protestors cheered them on.

“We just cannot afford to burn this coal,” said Martin Mackerel of Get Up Street Theater as the dancers discussed the possibility of having another flash mob outside of the Global Climate Action Summit.

Franklin called the bank’s practices hypocritical, saying that the company represents itself as environmentally-friendly, although he believes a coal project would be toxic to Oakland residents.

“This bank wants to portray itself as being green and sustainable in its work,” Franklin said, noting the bank’s own reports on the effects of their investments. The company’s Responsible Global Equity Strategy 2018 Impact Report cites a new policy that includes “divestment from companies with fossil fuel reserves” as well as encouraging transparency.

But Franklin argues that bank officials haven’t been transparent about their involvement in the project. Opponents sent an open letter to the bank’s CEO in March asking him to pledge to refrain from “advising on or arranging financing for the proposed terminal.”

Franklin said that, in their response, bank officials declined to comment on the matter.

But he believes that they will eventually join the conversation.

“We may be going to Montréal because we really believe that the bank wants to have a good reputation,” Franklin said. “And, until they abandon this project—disown it—they should not have a good reputation.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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