OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — Coal is so polluting that demand for it as an energy source is way down in the U.S. The industry has to increase exports to survive. To do that we’ve learned it’s got its eye on the Bay Area.
On the grounds of the old Oakland Army Base a transformation is underway. A new billion dollar rail and marine terminal, called the “Trade and Logistics Center” will open in just three years as a world class hub for the export of bulk commodities, mostly to Mexico, Japan and China
“It’s going to be great for Oakland,” said Jerry Bridges. He’s been hired by the developer to run a project centerpiece, a rail to ship transfer facility right next to the Bay Bridge toll plaza. “Our goal is to have soda ash moved through the facility, pot ash, borax, umm sodium concentrate, coal.”
Coal, Bridges says will be a big part of it. He says he’s close to signing a lucrative contract with 4 counties in Utah to receive and ship out 3 million tons of coal a year. “And let me just say about the coal out of that region: It’s the highest quality coal in the country, and thereby it’s the highest quality coal in the world.”
Coal is already exported through a private transfer yard in Richmond, where it sits in open rail cars right next to homes. Residents are complaining about the coal dust, an air pollutant known to cause asthma and cancer. But Bridges says his terminal will be different. “Every commodity that ships through our facility will arrive at the facility on the railroad in covered rail cars,” he said.
But Jess Dervin-Ackerman of the Sierra Club is skeptical. “They could promise to do that and then not do it,” she said. “Nowhere in the U.S. is coal transported with covered rail cars so how can we know that they can actually do that and protect the community,” she said.
And she says it’s not just about Oakland and the Bay Area. The coal will release tons of greenhouse gases in Mexico and China. “What we are saying is not in anybody’s back yard. We want to leave the coal in the ground,” she said.
Oakland leaders agree. In fact they’ve voted to divest in coal. But we’ve learned they may have tied their own hands when it comes to this deal. The development agreement they signed says “all approvals shall be made by the city administrator,” which leaves the city council and the public out of the loop,
even though the city owns the land that the terminal will be built on.
“Right now we are just focusing on getting it built,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf’s spokesperson Erica Derryck. KPIX5 asked her if the mayor was comfortable with coal exports being part of the project. Her response: “I think it’s too early to say what exactly is going to be part of the commodity group that will be coming through the facility.”
But KPIX 5 obtained an email that shows the mayor is working behind the scenes to put the kabosh on the coal deal. “I was extremely disappointed to hear Jerry Bridges mention the possibility of shipping coal into Oakland,” she writes to the developer. “Stop it immediately.”
But Jerry Bridges says he has no plans to back down. “The CEQA entitlement gives us every right to build and transport what we need to transport in order to be a viable and feasible project,” he said.
The project’s developer and landlord, prominent Oakland businessman Phil Tagami, turned down our request for an interview. In a statement he says it’s not up to him to decide what comes through the new terminal, it’s up to the man he hired to run it, Jerry Bridges.
Phil Tagami’s complete statement:
The City of Oakland approved an agreement to create the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), a multi-commodity bulk marine terminal at the former Oakland Army Base, in 2012. The City’s agreement with California Capital & Investment Group (CCIG) was comprehensively analyzed and endorsed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and reflects a modern, industry-standard marine terminal facility and operation that is consistent with state and federal law. Nothing has changed since the 2012 approval. OBOT’s construction and operations are designed consistent with the lawful expectations of potential customers – accommodating three or four of the full spectrum of approximately 15,000 bulk commodities regulated by federal law. This is standard industry practice and uniform at marine terminals throughout the United States.
In analyzing OBOT’s development under CEQA, the City imposed a comprehensive series of mitigation measures and conditions that the terminal operator will adhere to. No commodity may be transported through OBOT without full compliance with all applicable state and federal regulations.
CCIG is constructing OBOT, but is not and will not be the terminal operator. Neither CCIG nor any prospective terminal operator has made commitments to shipping any particular commodity through the terminal at this point in time. But, the issue is not about any single commodity. The City reviewed and approved OBOT as proposed. And in reliance on those approvals, CCIG and others have made binding and enforceable commitments to deliver OBOT for operations as entitled to ensure the viability of the entire revitalization plan for Oakland’s working waterfront.