Broad coalition wins Oakland ban on coal

Under pressure from a grand people’s coalition, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously Monday night to ban the storage and handling of coal in Oakland, successfully blocking a developer’s plan to ship coal from the port.

The broad No Coal in Oakland coalition (which came together over the last 14 months) was able to use public demonstrations of opposition to the coal shipping plan, as well as evidence showing the danger coal poses to the health and safety of the community and the environment, to counter the arguments and entreaties of the developer.

This “extraordinarily powerful movement”- as No Coal in Oakland spokesman Michael Kaufman put it – includes labor, the environment, the clergy, the health care community, the academic field, public officials, community groups and the communities that would have been directly affected by the transportation of coal through their neighborhoods.

In addition to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, a major component of the coalition is the Alameda County Central Labor Council, including a key affiliate, the longshore workers’ union whose members would have had to handle the coal at the Oakland docks.

“We’re just glad to be part of the coalition, and to fight for…what is good for our community,” Derrick Muhammad, Secretary-Treasurer of the International and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) Local 10, told the People’s World.

On the eve of the city council public hearing, a circular opposing the ban on coal made the rounds through the West Oakland community, the neighborhood through which the coal trains would pass before entering the port complex. The circular contained false statements, including that anti-coal proponents want to kill the whole project and the jobs that would go with it.

Addressing the issues raised by the circular and developer’s representatives at the public hearing, Josie Camacho, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, condemned the developer for using the largely African American and minority “community’s desire for jobs to push a project that poses a great danger to our health and the environment.”

Camacho said, “We reject the notion that this is a matter of jobs vs. community health, or jobs vs. climate justice.”

She reiterated the coalition’s desire to continue with the project, minus the coal component.

“The port development will be profitable and create jobs regardless of the commodity shipped through it,” she said.

The project, known as the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, will be built by a group of developers led by Prologis CCIG Oakland Global LLC. FC

Developers cut secret deal

In April of last year, coalition members learned that the developers had secretly cut a funding deal with four Utah counties to export coal through the Oakland bulk terminal.

The deal followed a public statement by Phil Tagami, CCIG’s President and CEO, that the company had “no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal-related operations at the former Oakland Army Base” where the terminal would be built.

Meanwhile, the city had already signed onto the 2013 Development Agreement with the developers, which could not be modified without breaching the contract, but with one exception.

The Agreement stipulates that the city can apply regulations retroactively if it “determines based on substantial evidence and after a public hearing” that occupants or users of the project and adjacent communities would be placed in a condition “substantially dangerous to their health and safety.”

Thus, the city council arrived at its decision solely on the basis of the substantial hazard to the community’s “health and safety” that the coal plan would represent. Following Monday’s decision, the council will take a second vote as required.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates testified on behalf of the mayors of a number of cities who signed a letter opposing the transportation of coal by rail through their towns on the way to the port of Oakland. In addition to Berkeley, they are the mayors of Fremont, Livermore, Hayward, Richmond, San Leandro, Union City, Emeryville, Albany and El Cerrito.

The proposal to ban coal was co-sponsored by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Councilmember Dan Kalb who carried the legislation in the council, which called for a ban on petcoke (a toxic coal processing byproduct) in addition to coal. Council member Desley Books was absent from the vote.

Oakland Councilmember Kalb, who played a leading role in the council, said, “With this new law, we’re taking the steps needed to protect our community, our workers, and our planet.”

A growing trend

With this action, the Oakland City Council joins other West Coast cities calling for a ban on coal. Portland, Ore. was the first city in the country to do so last year. That was followed this year by Oregon becoming the first state to ban coal for the state’s electric supply.

In California, State Senator Loni Hancock earlier this month handily won approval in the state senate of two bills, one of which would put significant roadblocks to Tagami’s plans to turn Oakland into a major coal export hub.

SB1277 would require additional environmental review for the plan to ship up to 10 million tons of coal per year through Oakland.

The other would prohibit the California Transportation Commission from allocating any state funds for projects proposed after Jan. 1, 2017, for the handling, storage, or transportation of coal at any port facility located in or adjacent to a disadvantaged community.

Before becoming law, the bills would have to be approved by the state assembly and then signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“No” to the coal train

Margaret Gordon, a long-time resident of West Oakland and Co-Exec. Director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, told the World that the coal train would have brought “more asthma, lung cancer and COPD” in a community, largely African American and people of color already suffering disproportionally from these illnesses.

Gordon, who lives one mile from the port complex and a mile from the rail lines leading to it, said the coal would have come to “hound us after 20 odd years of fighting for reduction of diesel exhaust” and winning some positive results.

She said the spewing of diesel-generated pollutants has be drastically reduced with the upgrading of trucks and the replacement of diesel with electrification of other waterfront equipment.

But, the fight of Gordon, her neighbors and other members of the No Coal in Oakland coalition may not be over yet.

At the public hearing the developer’s representatives threatened the council with suing the city if the ordinance banning coal went through.

By all accounts, the Ban Coal in Oakland coalition will endure as long as necessary.

Capturing the sentiment expressed by other coalition partners, Muhammed of the ILWU longshore union said, “On behalf of all the members of Local 10, we stand in solidarity.”

Photo: A “No Coal in Oakland” rally before the city council meeting on Monday, June 27, 2016.  |  Peg Hunter via Flickr (CC)


Juan Lopez
Juan Lopez

Juan Lopez is chairman of the Communist Party in northern California and statewide coordinator. He has been a labor and community activist during the nearly forty years he's lived in Oakland, where he and his wife raised three children. He was formerly a member of the Teamsters union and a shop steward.