Abel’s news: an update on the fight against coal in Oakland

A Special Update on the Fight against Coal in Oakland

By now, you have probably heard about last week’s federal court ruling that struck down the City of Oakland’s ban on coal shipments at a cargo terminal proposed for part of the former Oakland Army Base.

I am extremely disappointed that the court ruled in favor of hazardous coal trains and against Oakland residents’ long-term health and well-being. This ruling, if allowed to stand, will substantially affect the safety of vulnerable Oakland residents for years to come, including chronic disease, exacerbated illnesses and the potential disaster of a coal fire, as well as environmental and environmental-justice consequences for our region.

What’s at Stake: Our Community’s Health

With all due respect to the judge’s ruling, the health impacts are clear and undeniable: There is no safe level of exposure to fine coal-dust particles (PM2.5), according to the World Health Organization, U.S. EPA and CalEPA. When coal is burned, it often results in the release of mercury and lead and other trace or heavy metals into the environment, where food sources (such as urban gardens) become contaminated.

The potential health impacts posed by coal at the proposed terminal facility are a citywide threat. All of Oakland below I-580 – more than 400,000 residents – is considered an “impacted community,” according to the Bay Area air quality district’s designation of areas with high concentrations of air pollution and populations most vulnerable to air pollution’s health impacts.

The threat is especially ominous for West Oakland, where people are twice as likely to wind up in the emergency room with asthma than other Alameda County residents are.

The total greenhouse gas emissions produced each year, if all the coal exported through the proposed terminal is burned in power plants, would exceed the current emissions from all five oil refineries in the Bay Area.

Clean Jobs and a Healthy Economy

It is equally clear that the pursuit of job growth through a forward-looking, climate-smart economy is a healthier and more profitable approach than a short-sighted and continued dependence on fossil-fuel businesses and employment.

We can have clean jobs and a healthy environment, if we start with the idea of achieving both goals. 

We’ve heard claims that the coal terminal will create thousands of jobs, and that the project is not viable without coal shipments. We don’t believe that’s true. When the Council took action two years ago, the City staff report found that fewer than 200 jobs would be generated by the trans-loading and storage of coal. These jobs will be there for alternative commodities that can be shipped safely without endangering the health and safety of Oakland residents. Oakland can have clean, healthy jobs, jobs that will be more economically sustainable long-term than jobs from dirty-energy sources.

Our stand against the coal shipments demonstrates that Oakland is committed to being a great place for climate-smart innovators.

Oakland did not stand alone: The City Council was joined in this view by the nearly dozen other cities in the East Bay who are opposed to coal trains coming through our region.

I still want to see a shipping terminal built as part of revitalization efforts for the former Oakland Army Base, just not with the coal – just as the developer originally promised. That’s the solution I will continue to push for now, as we work through our responses to the court’s ruling.

The fundamental principle of government is to protect the health and safety of its residents. The City’s coal ban is consistent with Oakland’s existing climate action plan and environmental protections, which are the foundation for our future job growth and business growth.

Oakland can have both a healthy community and a healthy economy. We can fight against the impacts of climate change, and we can fight for the health and prosperity of our citizens.

Next Steps: The Fight Continues

This is not the end of the fight, and the Council will be deliberating on our options.

As one course of action, Judge Chhabria writes in his ruling: “The City remains free, of course, to pursue future regulation of the project so long as it complies with its legal obligations, including any legitimate contractual obligations to the project developers.”

To that end, I have asked to meet with the City Attorney to better understand our legal options, including rewriting our ordinance, appealing the judge’s decision, and looking at other remedies that the Council can take to protect the health and safety of our residents.

As your councilmember, I have a special obligation to protect the most vulnerable residents in our community, especially our children and at-risk seniors. As we weigh our options on the next legal step forward, I remain committed to protecting community health, pursuing environmental justice, and fostering economic growth.

Please let me know what you think about this issue. Email me at aguillen@oaklandnet.com.