Signage seen in and around Oakland in recent
months urging a ban on coal in the city.
The burning issue of coal in Oakland was snuffed out Monday night. After hours of sometimes rowdy debate, the Oakland City Council voted 7-0 to thwart a plan to ship coal through its port.
The proposal was vigorously opposed for more than a year by members of the public for its threat to the local and global environment, while some labor and church leaders lauded its potential for creating jobs.
Representatives from a group including Oakland developer Phil Tagami and Terminal Logistics Solutions CEO Jerry Bridges previously maintained the city did not explicitly rule out the transport of coal when it approved the project more than four years ago. Denial of the coal shipments, the group has argued, could deal a blow to financing for the entire Oakland Army base reconstruction as a premier port.
In advance of the meeting, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Councilmember Dan Kalb introduced legislation to ban coal shipments through the city, primarily from Utah and destined for Asia.
Coal was never in the picture, said Councilmember Anne Campbell Washington, who worked for the city government before joining the council two years ago. In addition, she said, it harms residents and puts the health of workers in danger.
“It’s not about making a dollar, it’s about social responsibility,” said Councilmember Noel Gallo. Numerous studies, said Gallo, had already showed coal is unhealthy and dangerous for Oakland. Councilmember Desley Brooks was absent from the vote.
Long-time Councilmember Larry Reid, viewed beforehand as someone somewhat sympathetic to coal came out firmly against. While praising the business acumen and future of success of two of the plan's backers, including Bridges, Reid added, however, “I don’t want them to be successful shipping coal through our city.”
Reid also said that the group, in a letter, had not only threatened legal action against the city if a prohibition on coal in Oakland was approved, but also against individual councilmembers. Reid said he hopes a long legal battle is avoided, but "this city is prepared to be in court.”
Featuring numerous outbursts from the public, primarily from supporters for the coal proposal on the grounds of securing jobs derived from the project, Monday’s highly-anticipated meeting delivered on its promise of a contentious evening despite the expected outcome. However, the rancor may continue for many more months.
Gregory McConnell, an Oakland lobbyist representing the consortium backing coal shipments further warned a lawsuit is imminent after tonight's decision. “It is not going to end tonight. Even if the decision you make tonight is to ban coal.” He later admitted the city council would vote Monday to ban coal shipment, but on several occasions asserted the decision was pre-determined and likely a point of contention within a possible lawsuit against the city. McConnell was also critical of the city releasing its lengthy study on the health and safety of coal in Oakland until last Friday night.
The city staff report McConnell referenced, however, was solidly opposed to coal in Oakland for its health and safety factors. Much of the report’s contents came as no surprise to opponents of the plan. Oakland Assistant City Manager Claudia Cappio said fugitive coal dust emission would impact air quality in West Oakland and the region while exposing the public to spontaneous combustion of coal dust, in addition to furthering global warming and pollution.
The report also found various solutions from the developers were unfounded, especially keeping coal dust out of neighborhoods by covering rail cars. “There are no effective means demonstrated by either coating or covering rail cars,” said Cappio.
Although a certain segment of local labor groups voiced strong support for bringing coal through Oakland, far more powerful groups with the labor movement added even more by way of opposition. Josie Camacho, executive director/secretary for the Alameda Labor Council said it was “insulting” for the developer to use labor as a wedge dividing workers. She called for “nothing less than a total ban” on coal and labelled the threat of losing jobs from the prohibition on coal “bogus.”
Derrick Muhammad, a representative for the local Longshoreman’s union questioned the efficacy of the pro-coal argument when it comes to jobs since most of the opportunities at the port are union jobs. “What jobs are we talking about?” he asked. “You’re not in the union to get in the project in the first place.”
Numerous public officials and representatives from several legislative offices also registered opposition to coal in Oakland. Earlier, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates presented the council with a letter signed by 11 East Bay mayors urging them to ban coal.
Coming into Monday's vote, the stakes for the bulk commodities facility was high. A group backing the coal plan sent a campaign-style mailer over the weekend to some Oakland residents asserting the plan’s opposition from the Sierra Club was being pushed by out-of-state members. The mailer, discredited by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, also placed logos of several local labor groups falsely suggesting support for the coal proposal. Judging by the outpouring of clear opposition to coal in Oakland, the mailer appeared to have little effect.