In an historic victory for environmental activists and local communities, the City Council voted unanimously at a heated council meeting this week to ban large amounts of coal from being stored and handled in Oakland.
The prohibition halts a deal with the Oakland Army Base development that would have seen megatons of coal transported through Oakland’s most vulnerable communities and shipped out of West Oakland.
The council determined after months of listening to community stakeholders and independent analyses that storing and handling large amounts of coal in Oakland would pose significant health and safety problems for city residents and workers.
As a result, the council voted to adopt a new ordinance that prohibits bulk amounts of coal from ever being stored in Oakland.
According to Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio, the risks that come with a city storing tons of coal include “fugitive dust, emissions that could exacerbate air quality conditions, poor worker health, the health of adjacent neighbors further exposed to pollution, fires, coal dust explosions and global warming from combusting coal overseas.”
Among local and state officials who showed their support for banning coal in Oakland were the mayors of cities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Senator Loni Hancock, County Supervisor Keith Carson and Assemblymember Tony Thurmond.
The decision to ban coal means that the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal (OBOT) will need to specialize in other commodities that it could ship out of West Oakland.
Over the past year, the debate over coal in Oakland had become split between its environmental and health dangers and the potential jobs it could create for the city’s unemployed.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, supporters of both sides of the issue yelled and interrupted speakers throughout the evening. Eventually, several people were escorted from the council chambers by security.
But council members were resolute about passing the ordinance banning coal in Oakland.
“We do need jobs in the city of Oakland, I hear people crying out for help,” said Councilmember Noel Gallo. “We need to continue to create jobs.”
“But every study tells us about coal, its impact on lungs and families and communities,” Gallo said. “I come from farmworker families who used to work in fields where chemicals and pesticides were dropped onto them and that used to be okay.”
Pastor Ken Chambers of West Side Baptist Church, who is a cancer survivor and spearheaded an interfaith group of religious leaders that opposed coal, reminded the council that their decision would not only affect local communities but would have global implications, as well.
“I have talked to Bishop Kevin Barnes, Bishop Joseph Simmons and Rev. Gerald Agee, and we have all agreed to come together after this vote tonight for the healing of this community,” Chambers said.
Pastor Kevin Barnes of the Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church said that banning coal would kill hundreds of jobs and would not protect the image of Oakland.
Dr. Geoffrey Watson of the James A. Watson Wellness Center said that unemployment in Oakland was a health problem, probably worse than exporting coal from Oakland would be.
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who has been firmly opposed to shipping the fossil fuel out of Oakland since the debate began, asked for clarification from Claudia Cappio on some of the proponents’ claims.
“The OBOT would permanently employ between 100 and 200 people and a little more temporarily during construction,” said Cappio.
“It is sad and inappropriate to go to people desperate for employment and to give them false information about jobs available,” said Kaplan.
“The rest of the army base project is unrelated to coal shipping and all the jobs in warehousing, shipping and construction are going to go ahead whether or not coal is shipped,” she said.
The council will make its second vote on the ordinance to ban coal on July 15.