Oakland Halts Coal Shipping Plan, Pitting Jobs Against Health

By Yessenia Funes Jun 28, 2016

Late Monday night (June 27), Oakland City Council voted against shipping coal from its new export terminal citing climate-change and health concerns. 

The coal controversy began three years ago when the City of Oakand hired [PDF] a Delaware limited liability company, Prologis CCIG Oakland Global, to turn its defunct Army base into an export center, Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal. According to SF Gate, the project drew criticism when the developer entered into talks with several Utah coal mining communities. The plan was to ship coal from Utah into the West Oakland center and ship it out to China and other overseas markets. 

The Sierra Club, in its anti-coal campaign materials, accused the developers of making a secret $53 million funding deal with Utah after "years of assurances that coal would not be transported through the bulk terminal."According to the New York Times, this export center would have been the largest of its type on the West Coast.

Coal is a contentious issue. Some Oakland church and community groups have argued that shipping the fossil fuel would bring Oakland residents union jobs. But environmental and even labor groups like the Alameda County Labor Council opposed the plan citing environmental health impacts like asthma. During last night’s meeting, reports SFGate, hundreds of people on both sides of the argument crowded City Hall and demonstrated outside.

One thing no one can argue is how dirty coal is: It’s responsible for 77 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions—even though it generates only 39 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the EPA.

Oakland coal supporters have pointed to an estimated $76 million annual payroll for the union jobs the development would have brought to the economically depressed, predominantly African-American community of West Oakland.

“If a person doesn’t have a job, it’s going to affect their health—they can’t get the right kind of medical [care] they need for their families," Kevin Barnes, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and coal advocate, told SFGate.

But this is exactly the community anti-coal folks like Mayor Libby Schaff say they are trying to protect.

“No person should ever have to choose between a job and their health and safety,” the mayor was quoted as saying at last night’s meeting by the L.A. Times. “There are plenty of other commodities. Plenty of other economic activity that is going to be successful in this project."

West Oakland, a historically Black neighborhood nearest to the coast, already suffers from high rates of asthma and cancer, the Los Angeles Times reports. Coal combustion would emit even more pollutants—like particulate matter, cancerous organic compounds and nitrogen oxides—that exacerbate those illnesses.

“Oakland cannot afford to ignore the scientific evidence that clearly show the harmful effects and risk associated with coal,” said City Council person Dan Kalb in a statement. “With this new law, we’re taking the steps needed to protect our community, our workers and our planet.”

The ban will be made official after a second, largely procedural, vote July 19. It is expected to pass.