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

Eric K. Arnold

Protest at Oakland City Council hearing on coal in September 2015.

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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