By Mike Blasky The Contra Costa Times
First Published Sep 22 2015 12:21PM
Controversy » At a special City Council hearing, the heated debate boils down to jobs vs. health.
Oakland, Calif. • Kwame Nitoto doesn't want to hear about "safer" coal or the economic benefits of shipping fossil fuels from Utah through Oakland.
There will always be new commodities to ship, more jobs to create. But coal isn't the future, and Oakland's residents can't afford to live in the past, he said — not when their health is at stake.
"Let's stop pretending this is coal versus jobs. It's not about that," said Nitoto, program director for Positive Communication Practices, a Bay Area agency that works with at-risk youths. "If we're going to say health and safety is a priority, don't do it. Just don't do it."
Nitoto was one of the hundreds of speakers who drew applause or jeers at a crowded, passionate special council meeting Monday to discuss a developer's contentious plan to ship millions of tons of Utah coal through the city's $250 million bulk shipping and logistics terminal development at the former Army Base, a cornerstone project for the city.
Utah's Community Impact Board, which oversees federal mining royalties given to the state to help mitigate impacts on local communities, has committed $53 million to the project. It is a controversial shift from the board's traditional focus on such things as local government buildings, water projects and roads. But supporters defend the low-interest loan as an investment in reviving the struggling economies of the four rural Utah counties that propose to take an ownership interest in the port project.
The hearing Monday was a first step for city officials, many of whom have already publicly slammed the plan, to gather testimony about the health and environmental impacts of shipping coal and other fossil fuels through West Oakland before taking steps to formally reject it. That wasn't an option for the council on Monday, as the hearing was only a fact-finding mission.
Most of the speakers focused on the health and environment concerns.
Dr. Muntu Davis, Alameda County's public health director, said children and seniors are particularly vulnerable to coal dust from rail transport, especially those in the city's poor neighborhoods.
Children in West Oakland are already twice as likely to suffer from asthma and respiratory disease, he said.
"Coal dust always comes out, and that dust will sit there. It's not like it will just blow away," he said. "And if it does get washed away, it will wash into the bay."
The coal proposal by developer Phil Tagami, who is also the city-designated agent for the project, has drawn the ire of many elected officials since it was uncovered this year by the Richfield Reaper reporting on the state's interest in shipping coal at the new bulk terminal adjacent to the Port of Oakland.
Terminal Logistics Solutions, or TLS, will start building the Bulk and Oversized Terminal at the Oakland Global Trade & Logistics Center later this year and hopes to finish the 35-acre project in 2017.
Tagami didn't attend the hearing, but many of his supporters did. A lawyer working for Tagami's company told the council the city might not have jurisdiction to ban coal from the terminal because the project was already approved and the federal government has jurisdiction of rail transport.
Jerry Bridges, president of TLS and a former executive director of the Port Authority, told the council that his company is reviewing the viability of all commodities, including coal. But if the terminal chooses to export coal, Oakland has an opportunity to show the world it's possible to transport it safely.
"Our commitment to the safety and health of our workers is a top priority, and we will operate in a manner that meets and exceeds all industry standards," Bridges said.
The council chambers were filled to capacity as soon as doors opened Monday, sending extra speakers to the city's overflow meeting rooms downstairs.
Dozens of residents wore red "Beyond coal exports" shirts and carried "no coal" exports sign.
Others came to the meeting concerned about the prospect of losing jobs if the city passes on coal, a lucrative but increasingly scarce resource as more people stop using fossil fuels for energy.
Several dozen construction workers wearing yellow "I Support Oakland Jobs" T-shirts packed City Hall a few hours before the hearing to support the coal plan, although not every worker seemed interested in the night's content. Many of the workers said they weren't sure which side of the argument they were on, and most only ceded their speaking time to pro-coal lawyers and executives without making a statement.
Debbie Niemeier, a civil and environmental engineering professor at UC Davis, and an expert in emissions, said 10.5 million tons of coal means 30 million tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
And coal-burning in Asia impacts U.S. residents on the West Coast, she said, with greenhouse gases a real concern for the world.
"Climate change is responsible for the sea level rise and exacerbating the California drought," Niemeier said.
Others took a blunt view of the situation.
Kevin Barnes, a pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, told the council that many of Oakland residents were poor and starving and need real jobs that pay living wages.
There is a drug crisis impacting the city's youth, he said.
"With all this cocaine in the streets," Barnes said, "you're worried about coal?"
But others cautioned that the short-term economic benefits of coal aren't necessarily good for the long-term residents.
Derrick Muhammad, a member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 10, which recently voted to oppose the handling of coal, said prostitution is a form of employment. But not all money is good money.
Any benefit from coal, Muhammad said, "is far outweighed by its detriment."
Mike Blasky covers Oakland City Hall. Contact him at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/blasky.
— The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this story.