Oakland Leaders Ban Coal Storage at Port Terminal

     OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The Oakland City Council voted unanimously to ban the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke in West Oakland during an emotional meeting Monday night.
     In a move that exposed a fissure between environmental advocates who say shipping coal through West Oakland would endanger public health and residents keen on bringing new jobs to the neighborhood, councilmembers also unanimously approved a resolution to extend the ban to the planned cargo facility at the former Oakland army base, where developers want to build the state’s biggest coal export terminal.
     Former Port of Oakland executive director Jerry Bridges and Oakland developer Phil Tagami, who are building the facility known as the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal to handle a variety of commodities like grain, told the council that terminal will create 1,000 coal-related construction jobs and 2,400 permanent jobs once it’s operational.
     Coal supporters were enthusiastic about those statistics, chanting “Let us work! Let us work!” during the fraught public comment period Monday. Others, however, shouted down anti-coal advocates for being outsiders who didn’t understand West Oakland’s need for more jobs.
     “My community is dying,” West Oakland resident Kwame Grant-Bey said in an interview at the meeting Monday. “They’re heavily moving African-Americans out, to be honest, and we need jobs to survive. “They’re more than likely going to be pushing [the coal jobs] toward our community. They’re gonna help us.”
     But Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said developers had lied to West Oakland residents about the number of jobs coal would create in order to drum up support, after Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio clarified that coal would only create between 100 and 200 permanent jobs at the terminal.
     “It’s sad and inappropriate to go to people needing jobs and give them false information,” Kaplan said, adding that keeping coal in the redevelopment project could actually endanger the many other jobs it would create. Local, state and federal agencies have indicated they may pull their funding if the project proceeds with coal included, Kaplan said.
     Several studies commissioned by the city and Councilmember Dan Kalb assessing the health impacts of handling and shipping coal through Oakland found that coal dust blowing off trains into nearby neighborhoods can cause asthma and cancer. Due to their proximity to major freeways and industrial activity, people who live in West Oakland are already exposed to increased levels of pollution and suffer from elevated rates of those diseases, according to a report by city staff.
     Bridges assured the council that coal and petcoke would be transported in covered rail cars that would “all but eliminate fugitive dust” from blowing into West Oakland. But Environmental Science Associates, which the city commissioned to analyze the health and safety impacts of the proposed coal terminal, found no evidence that covers would stop coal dust from blowing off trains traveling to and from West Oakland.
     The terminal’s backers threatened to take the city to court if councilmembers voted for the ban.
     “You’ll be subjecting the city to hundreds of millions of dollars in potential loss,” attorney and terminal supporter Gregory McConnell warned the council Monday night.
     Margaret Rossoff of No Coal in Oakland said in an interview that the legal threats were toothless. A 2013 agreement the city signed with developers specifies that the city can legally modify the agreement and enact protective measures if there is evidence of danger to public health and safety.
     Despite the terminal’s threats, the city council was decisive in banishing coal from Oakland, unanimously approving the ban. Councilmember Desley Brooks was not at the meeting.
     “My son is asthmatic, my niece is asthmatic,” City Council president Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland, said just before the vote. “I’ve spent too many days in the hospital making sure she could breathe.”

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