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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Mar 22, 2016, 1:30 pm

Oakland Workers Join Grassroots Environmental Justice Activists To ‘Say No to Coal’

BY Eric K. Arnold

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Protest at Oakland City Council hearing on coal in September 2015.   ©2015 Eric K. Arnold

This post first appeared at RP&E.

Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.

According to the most recent annual report of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings.

According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”

This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. Coal producers’ last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”

Oakland’s “no coal” stance sends shock waves

A showdown in Oakland, California in 2015, over a proposal to convey coal via train to a planned marine terminal at the site of the old Oakland Army Base site, generated considerable controversy. Coal advocates based in Utah secured tens of millions in loans from an obscure public agency to dangle in front of Terminal Logistics Solutions (TLS) for the right to bring coal through West Oakland, one of the most polluted areas in the entire state. But a coalition of environmental advocates was ready with a grassroots campaign joined by numerous community organizations.

On February 16, the Oakland City Council voted to table a proposal to pay Environmental Science Associates $208,000 in consultant fees to determine whether the coal trains would pose significant health risks. The Council was reportedly set to approve the contract, but abruptly reversed its decision after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf urged them to delay the decision, and environmental advocates pointed to a recent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) authored by Environmental Science Associates for the city of Benicia, which significantly downplayed the health hazards of a proposed coal train project (though it did note significant risks of air pollution).

The Benicia EIR, prepared by a former employee of the American Association of Railroads, contradicted NRDC’s findings which stated that the aging train cars to be used in the project were not equipped to handle what the Wall Street Journal termed the equivalent of “two million sticks of dynamite” per car. NRDC’s findings had raised concerns about a potentially lethal incident, such as what occurred in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when 69 crude oil-laden cars caught fire and exploded after rolling down a hill and derailing at a speed of 63 mph. The disaster killed 47 people, incinerated much of the town’s center, caused 36 of the 39 remaining downtown buildings to be demolished due to petroleum contamination, sent 26,000 gallons of oil into the Chaudière river (resulting in a swimming and fishing ban and causing deformities in almost 50 percent of the river’s marine life) and generated cleanup costs well in excess of $7.6 million, as well as insurance claims totaling $50 million. Needless to say, Benicia rejected the proposal.

Furthermore, a poll conducted on behalf of the Sierra Club found that 76 percent of Oakland residents opposed the coal trains, while only 15 percent supported it. And on February 19, California State Senator Loni Hancock introduced four separate bills (SB 1277, 1278, 1279 and 1280) aimed at restricting coal in California and, specifically, keeping it out of Oakland.

If passed, the bills would declare shipping coal through West Oakland a health and safety hazard and prohibit coal from being shipped through the Port of Oakland; require comprehensive environmental data collection for coal projects by public agencies; prohibit the use of public funds to operate coal-exporting facilities adjacent to low-income communities; and require facilities which receive state funds to either prohibit coal altogether, or contribute to the state’s greenhouse gas reduction fund. In short, Hancock’s bills would close almost every loophole which has come to light in the Oakland coal train battle.

Hancock’s actions also sent a clear message to the Oakland City Council to take decisive action to prioritize the environmental health of a community already suffering from the double whammy of toxic levels of pollution and the lowest income levels in the entire city. This may prove to be the nudge Oakland city officials needed to firmly reject the coal proposal, after months of inaction and behind-the-scenes dithering over possible liability concerns.

Lies, deception and backroom deals push coal on Oakland

On September 21, 2015, almost 700 people signed up to speak at a public forum addressing a proposal to build a new coal handling facility at the former Oakland Army Base—a new record, according to clerk LaTonda Simmons. At the hearing, which lasted almost six-and-a-half hours,  Oakland City Council members heard from concerned members of the community worried about the negative health impacts of fugitive coal dust residue, as well as several experts who offered testimony about environmental and public health factors. On the other side were allies of developer Phil Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group and TLS, the company that would operate the proposed West Oakland terminal where the coal transported from Utah would arrive before being exported to China and other foreign destinations. The pro-coal advocates included several paid lobbyists and hired-gun consultants who insisted that this coal would be the cleanest coal available in the United States, as well as construction workers and church leaders who said the community needed the jobs.

Some of the most impactful testimony came from Katrina Booker, a former registered nurse who currently works as a longshorewoman at the port of Stockton. Booker’s first-person account of what it’s like to be a worker at a coal facility cut through all the rhetoric and dry statistical data to offer a dose of reality. “When the coal comes off the ships off the conveyor belts, you have the most dust there. When I work, I have to wear my mask, and that doesn’t keep the dust out. At the end of the day, my eyes are burning and red. I get nosebleeds, I have headaches, it’s hard for me to breathe. Whatever has gotten past that mask, I have already inhaled into my lungs.”

Christopher Christiansen, a 4th generation longshoreman with ILWU Local 1021, was more succinct in his assessment: “Coal is wrong for our community and our docks. The argument that we need coal… just doesn’t pass with a straight face.”

Margaret Gordon, an environmental activist based in West Oakland, warned “If coal comes in here, … there’s no more resiliency, it’s not sustainability, none of that is happening anymore. … That’s not what I have worked for [for] 20 years… cleaning up the air pollution in West Oakland.”

The Council hearing capped off a well-coordinated campaign against coal which resulted in what some long-term environmental activists are calling an unprecedented show of solidarity across demographic and ethnic lines. “It’s been a tremendous effort, probably the most powerful organizing effort I’ve seen in Oakland since I’ve been involved in environmental work,” said Brian Beveridge, who’s worked with Gordon for the past decade on the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), one of the core organizations which anchored the campaign, along with the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Communities For a Better Environment, Baykeeper, Asian Pacific Islander Environmental Network and Sunflower Alliance.

“We’ve certainly seen powerful organizing around Black Lives Matter and some of the other social justice issues, but as far as the environment, this has really brought people together across the board. All races, genders, ages,” Beveridge said, adding that the engagement of young people and people of color, “feels like a sea change in the modern environmental movement. We’re just not that divided on it anymore. People are saying, if that’s the job they’re offering, we don’t need a job that bad. There are better jobs to be had than shoveling coal in an underground bunker. That is a really powerful thing. I don’t think the developers thought they were going to jumpstart a whole new element of the environmental movement. Talk about unintended consequences!”

The Oakland campaign began in 2013. At that time, CCIG’s Tagami insisted in a newsletter for the project that, “CCIG is publicly on record as having no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal related operations at the former Oakland Army Base.”

But it soon became apparent that the coal industry was indeed targeting Oakland. After the Port of Oakland unanimously rejected three proposals to export coal in February 2015, Utah lobbyists visited the new terminal site in March 2015, just one month before securing a $53 million loan to help CCIG pay for the cost of constructing the facility. CCIG Vice President Mark McClure was present at a presentation before the Community Fund Investment Board (CIB), an obscure Utah state agency which granted the loan.

Opposition to coal creates unprecedented unity

“When people started reading these articles from Utah, and hearing the quotes from Utah’s (CIB), and Mark McClure there talking about it, and the transcripts of those stories,” environmental activists were outraged, Beveridge said.

The first time the word “coal” appeared on a public document, “We got together and started talking about what we might do to stop it,” said Michelle Myers, president of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. Initial efforts included door-to-door canvassing in West Oakland, because, “it was important for us to start this campaign in communities that would be most impacted.”

From there, the efforts mushroomed. There were meetings at churches; flyers were circulated via a West Oakland food truck; and organizations, such as Bay Localize and the Rose Foundation, joined the campaign.

“We’re committed to a different future for Oakland which is all about clean energy,” said Bay Localize’s Colin Miller. “We don’t have to choose between good jobs and good health. We can actually have both.” Miller is one of the organizers for the Summer Climate Justice Leadership Academy, which helps train local youth “who have committed to a livable future for themselves and their families.”

One of those youth, 17 year-old Paulina Garcia, attended the City Council hearing and was prepared to speak against coal, “because I want to see better change in my community and find solutions for the younger generation to have a cleaner, better Oakland.”

Alvina Wong, APEN’s Oakland Community Organizer, said her organization has been involved in the No on Coal campaign for about a year. Many APEN members live in West Oakland and Chinatown, or along International Blvd where the density of air pollution is an ongoing concern. Wong has helped to mobilize hundreds of people—from monolingual Chinese to Pacific Islanders—and says that her constituents, who span the demographic gamut across age, gender, and race, have “so much energy and emotion on stopping coal!”

In addition to backing from a diverse range of environmental groups, key support also came from organized labor: the SEIU and the California Nurses Association—which provide care for people impacted by coal dust—also jumped aboard, as did the longshore workers of ILWU and the Alameda Labor Council. These were important allies, because their involvement directly countered the argument that coal was necessary to create jobs. Numerous petition campaigns demanding that Oakland ban coal circulated on social media, ultimately garnering over 10,000 signatures. A large rally before Oakland City Hall in July 2015 raised public awareness and initiated a flurry of media attention—creating a negative public perception of Tagami, who had gone to great lengths to keep his coal plans under the radar.

All’s fair in coal wars: “money laundering” to bolster coal?

But the coal lobby won’t go down without a fight and an entrenched legal battle may lie ahead. In November 2015, CCIG filed a brief to dismiss the suit on the basis that the statute of limitations to contest a CEQA review expired in 2012, even though coal was not specifically mentioned in the original project proposal.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity teamed up to petition the Utah courts to block the use of public funds intended for Utah communities in California. This action was followed by an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune which called the use of CIB funds for the crude-by-rail scheme “disturbing” and noted that the loan application wasn’t received until four weeks after the loan had already been approved. It went on to note conflict-of-interest concerns and the riskiness of using public funds for such a venture, echoing a Tribune editorial which also noted the lack of transparency and apparent attempt to hide the coal scheme from the public (“coal” was never mentioned during the CIB’s public hearing in April 2015). Furthermore, it noted, “There was no mention of the fact that the city of Oakland has a policy that opposes the shipment of fossil fuels through its ports, and lawsuits could ensue. There is no guarantee the port will be completed, and it's unclear how the loan would be collateralized.” At press time, the Utah Attorney General had not yet made public his review of the CIB loan’s legality.

Despite the recent victories for the environmentalists, the battle is far from over. On March 1, 2016, Utah State Senator Stuart Adams introduced a bill, SB246, which would reroute the $50-plus million loan through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, essentially sidestepping the legal issue of using CIB funds for a purpose they may not have been intended for. Earthjustice lawyer Ted Zinkowski likened the new bill to a money-laundering scheme, noting, “All the questions we raised about this use of CIB money would remain.” But Utah officials seem willing to overlook those questions in the hopes that the loan will help stimulate rural counties which are highly dependent on coal mining.

Oakland activists ready to “Occupy” coal route

Big money, shady dealings, controversial politics, and a unified coalition of local grassroots activists and nationally-known environmental organizations: this story has all the trappings of the kind of movie Hollywood used to make in the post-Vietnam War era, when it still had a moral center. But this is no mere fictional account because real human lives and the survival of a disadvantaged community lie in the balance.

Should the City of Oakland put the kibosh on the coal proposal, it’s hard to imagine that the TLS, CCIG and Utah coal lobby would just skulk away without exhausting every possible legal avenue at their disposal. It’s possible that the coal proposal could be decided on in Oakland before Hancock’s flurry of bills wend their way through the legislative process, but it’s just as likely that any decision by the Oakland Council could be further delayed until state lawmakers vote on the proposed restrictions.

But even if the environmental argument ultimately loses in court, grassroots organizers are prepared to take actions to block the trains. As Al Weinrub of the Oakland Clean Energy Alliance said, “This has been so well-organized, it’s not going to go away. If they lose the fight here, they’ll take it to the streets. … People will lay down on the tracks. It’s gonna be another Occupy.”

Article text is available under a Creative Commons license from Race Poverty & the Environment (RP&E),

Eric K. Arnold spent 20 years as a music journalist and documentarian before expanding his repertoire to include community-based reportage on topical issues, from energy to environment to police accountability. He was a New America Media Energy Reporting Fellow in 2013. Currently the Communications Director for Oakland-based urban forestry organization Urban Releaf, Eric also handles media outreach for muralist collective Community Rejuvenation Project. Additionally, his photography can be seen regularly on the Oakulture blog, of which he is the founder.

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