Emeryville among eleven East Bay cities opposing transport of Coal to Oakland Terminal

4 mins read

Emeryville has jumped into a political battle involving the transport of Coal to an export terminal being built at the former West Oakland Army Base. A project being spearheaded by prominent Oakland developer Phil Tagami who’s resume includes the rehabilitation of the Fox theatre among many other projects. At the crux of the fight is the hope of thousands of local, union jobs the project has promised to bring versus the global environment and health concerns associated with the mining, transport and burning of the abundant fossil fuel.

Emeryville has stated its opposition by co-signing a letter to Oakland City Council noting the impact on our local communities. “A main rail line likely to be used by coal shipments passes through our cities. Our communities would be exposed not only to coal dust and increased diesel emissions but also to increased risk of collisions and derailments from coal trains.”

Developers and politicians including then Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Barbara Lee & Lynette Gibson McElhaney participated in the groundbreaking for the project in 2013.

An estimated 9 million tons of coal would travel through Emeryville annually to West Oakland and be exported to developing nations. Nations like Mexico and China who are still reliant on Coal for industry and have less-strict environmental regulations. Environmental concerns range from the dust spewed through transport of coal which has been linked to Asthma, to global climate change by emitting carbon dioxide. Burning coal also releases Mercury into the air and it inevitably is brought down into our rivers, streams and oceans. Opponents like the Sierra Club have persistently expressed the criticality of moving away from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources or the promised Clean Energy Economy.

The Oakland City Council approved a contract in 2012 with Tagami’s California Capital & Investment Group to develop the site but Councilmembers insist transporting coal was not considered in the Environmental Review. The project broke ground with much fanfare in 2013 promising to replace the 7,000 jobs lost when the Oakland Army base shuttered in 1999. The construction of the site will reportedly employ as many as 1,500 workers and when complete, employee an estimated 12,000 people.

The state of Utah, where much of the coal will be transported from, has committed $53 million to help fund the Oakland project. Public money intended for projects in rural Utah communities according to this Chronicle piece. Utah mines shipped an estimated $169 Million in coal in 2015 with a vast majority going to Mexico. Domestic consumption of coal is winding down but developing countries continue to rely on the cheap form of Energy. If the demand for coal is not met by U.S. exports, it’s likely to be provided by other sources namely China who is the world’s number one producer and consumer by far. China itself has made commitments to reduce its dependence on coal and is the current global leader in Renewable Energy investments. While California’s stance would send a strong political message, it’s unlikely to have a substantial global impact without international cooperation.

Emeryville Council already sent a resolution opposing coal’s shipment to the port back in March and a coalition of eleven Bay Area Mayors including acting Mayor Martinez recently sent a joint letter to Oakland urging them to reject the plan.”We sincerely urge you – for the sake of all of us and the planet – to take action to reject the coal plan and protect the health and safety of our communities.” The letter basically amounts to political posturing as none of the cities have any actual authority to stop this. In fact Oakland may not have any legal standing as coal is a legal commodity. Oakland’s current plan, led by Mayor Libby Schaff, is to slow down the project and gain some leverage by forcing a study of the hazardous impacts of transporting coal in the area.


Oakland City officials and activists also attest that Tagami broke a pledge after verbally stating in 2013 that he had “no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal-related operations at the former Oakland Army Base.” In addition, a public records request revealed an email communication by Utah Transportation Commission Chairman Jeffrey Holt “to downplay coal” as part of their political strategy. Holt resigned late last year. California Capital & Investment Group insists that coal exporting are vital to the viability of the project and omitting coal would set a precedent that would undermine their operation and invite initiatives blocking other exports.

Many activists have turned to Governor Brown who has a long relationship with Tagami and also spoke in favor of Clean Power at a recent U.N. conference in Paris. The state legislature, led by Senator Loni Hancock, has also sponsored bills that would ban the export of coal from Oakland. These bills would arrive at Governor Browns desk as early as June forcing him to take action.

Coal dust from open railway cars is a source of particulate matter that is dangerous to breathe according to the World Health Organization.

In a city and state that is demanding union and living wage jobs, does opposing a big source of them without providing an alternative comes across as hypocritical? Something detailed in a Sierra Club piece titled “How to support clean energy and not be a jerk“. The piece details a plan being jointly orchestrated by unions and environmentalists to help ease the transition of these coal industry jobs through investment and job training and ensure that the cost burden of doing so is spread around.

The Union of Concerned Scientists Fact Sheet notes the benefits of moving to renewable energy include nearly 300K jobs, $64B in savings and a 2% reduction in pollution that contributes to global warming by 2025. As the Sierra Club piece notes: “The value of avoiding catastrophic climate change is incalculable.”

More information about the efforts to prevent Coal from traveling through our Communities can be found at NoCoalinOakland.info

Further Reading & Resources

Oakland coal-shipment dustup grows: What will Brown do? | SF Chronicle
Coal-shipping plan divides Oakland over health, jobs issues | SF Chronicle
Utah Governor Signs Bill to Advance Oakland Coal Plan | KQED News
Oakland Coal Terminal Becomes a Political Flash Point | Wall Street Journal
Oakland coal depot proposal takes a step forward | SF Business Times
How Utah quietly made plans to ship coal through California | LA Times
How to support clean energy and not be a jerk | SierraClub.org
Coal: The fuel of the future, unfortunately | The Economist
The Clean Energy Economy in Three Charts | Energy.gov
China Leads In Renewable Investment — Again! | Forbes.com

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.


  1. Rob thanks so much for this excellent article. The health and safety impacts from these huge coal trains, as well as the commercial and economic ones from increased noise and traffic congestion at local rail crossings, would be a real hit to the quality of life and economic vitality of our fair city. Perhaps Emeryville’s real estate and business interests could express their own concerns about the implications of huge coal trains transiting E’ville on a daily basis, as a way of countering the incorrect perception that anyone against the project is anti-job. The developers have sought to create the impression that opponents are totally against the project, which is not true, they only oppose coal being included due to its well known and serious health consequences. Another excellent resource for more information, including upcoming Oakland City Council actions to hopefully ban coal, is linked here – http://nocoalinoakland.info/

  2. Dear Rob ;

    it always sound, look good the voice concern about the quality of life of others if it would not include first your own, its nothing new

    Those opposing the coal shipment through our cities all have good paying job, they are the have and wants further to control those who do not have by the economics of those potential jobs.
    Anything is just an argument to say no to everything. Exaggeration is nothing short of making up lies, yet those opposing do not live in depressed area and those train do not pass in their neighborhood! What’s their problems if it is not their pocket book.
    This country has by-lateral agreement that is part of our foreign policies and scuttling those agreement is not only counter productive by annoying to those seeking any king of job but contrary to the help people who do not have any income because of their ” location ”
    location, location.
    Barbara Lee is right, its another expression of racism that is blinded with the environment topic.
    For once the state of Utah is in line for making some money on its coal mine, then our parasites mobilize to undermine their hopes of having their mine functioning. This is mean.

    • Here, here.

      This is just another NIMBY argument that undermines the working class so that well off people can feel good about themselves while dumping the realities of industrialization on poor communities.

      Just because our country became a first-world power using every energy source available doesn’t give us the right to try to deny cheap energy to others, particularly as one of the top polluters.

      And don’t fool yourself that denying passage helps the environment. The coal will get where it needs to go either the short way or the long way.

      Oddly, you can watch military trains roll thru Emeryville with tanks and artillery as far as the eye can see with nary a complaint.

      Emeryville will be just fine with coal trains passing by like every other train that tools through the city. The pollution from I80 will always be far, far worse. Don’t our city governments have better things to do than making symbolic nuisances of themselves?

  3. Cannot the coal be shipped in covered cars and loading and unloading of the cars be done in in a controlled environment. It doesn’t sound like rocket science to me..

  4. It’s true that Emeryville residents will be subjected to more air pollution if coal is transported in the corridor.

    A health problem that has not been mentioned is the constant, loud and frequent train horns which the Federal government requires be blown several times each for 5 sec each at every crossing. They can be heard all the way up to San Pablo Avenue.

    Blaring train horns assault the nervous system. One never knows when the next horn will sound. Horns interfere and disrupt phone conversations and hearing the TV. Most tragic is the fact that horns often interrupt a good night’s sleep. Have you been woken up at 2 am because a train “needs” to blow a loud horn to “warn” cars and pedestrians out at 2 am a train is approaching?

    Horns are the least sexy feature of our beloved Emeryville community. I hope you will bring up this oft forgotten feature of trains.

    My straw poll shows residents along the corridor are sick of the noise pollution especially during spring and summer when doors and windows are open and would eagerly petition for funding to find alternate solutions.

    Tralee Johnson MA MFT
    415 508-MATH

  5. Thank you for the excellent article, but I do have one quibble: I am also, like Kevin, part of the No Coal in Oakland campaign, and the way you frame the dispute is somewhat inaccurate. The issue of jobs is a complete red herring being spread by Tagami, TLS, Bowie Resources, and the others who wish to make this a “coal export” facility.

    According to our research, if the project were to go forward, with a prohibition on coal exports–but not other commodities–NO JOBS WOULD BE SACRIFICED. You can read our study by visiting the No Coal in Oakland website.

    The idea that we would be unsympathetic to workers’ concerns is a lie spread by Tagami, et. al. As a matter of fact, myself and at least a half dozen other members of the No Coal in Oakland campaign are active union members, and we see through the misinformation being spread by the “pro coal” side.

    That is why a total of *18* unions have gone on record opposing coal exports, including the unions that represent port workers, specifically ILWU Locals 6, 10, and 34 as well as SEIU 1021 and the San Francisco Bay Region of the Inlandboatman’s Union. (And to be certain, the other maritime unions and rail unions have not taken a position on the issue). Only the Teamsters and (some) Building Trades support coal exports.

    For more information on the union issue, please refer to this article I wrote last fall: http://ecology.iww.org/node/1374

    It’s time to explode the “jobs” versus “environment” rhetoric, especially when it’s really *profits* versus the environment (and make no mistake about this: these same employers shed not a single tear when they eliminate 250,000 or so oil and several hundred thousand coal jobs due to the whims of the capitalist market).

    • So we’re supposed to believe the unions are telling the whole story? That would be a first.

      The unions who would benefit financially from a coal terminal are supporting it. The unions who would not are opposing it. Nothing new there.

      That’s their job but it doesn’t tell us anything about the reality of the situation for the community. The unions look out for the unions not the community, and if there’s one place that has been made clear as day in the last year, it’s Emeryville.

      • Workers organizations protecting their perceived interests? PERISH THE THOUGHT! However your absurd claim that unions are these selfish and greedy organizations that look out for their own interests at the expense of everyone else is anti-union propaganda (and it doesn’t reflect reality. The Nurses’ Union opposes coal exports because the latter is a detriment to public health. The port workers who oppose the coal exports gain nothing by doing so, except the health of the community).

        I think it’s greedy corporations who better fit the description you offer.

      • Uh, the port workers gain quite a bit if they are protecting their jobs against a new less labor intensive commodity displacing them. No qualms with labor unions fighting to protect their interests. That’s what they do and should do, but let’s call it what it is. Pretending that the unions are advocates for the community is silly. Unions are advocates for the unions.

      • Dear Anonymous…you really don’t understand the specifics of the port or this project. This terminal has no significant effect whatsoever on the existing port jobs. The currently existing ILWU jobs involve loading and unloading containers (Oakland is and has been a containerized port for more than four decades). There has, hitherto, been very little “break-bulk” shipping out of the Bay Area (and most of that takes place in San Francisco, and involves no coal whatsoever). This new facility is a break bulk shipping facility.

        Break bulk requires *more* jobs, not less, and the OBOT is a brand new facility, being built on the decommissioned army base where there hasn’t been any economic activity for some time. So I really don’t know where you get the idea that any jobs would be displaced by this facility.

        The nearest jobs involving coal that affect the ILWU are in *Stockton*.

        There will be jobs, coal or no coal; the facility will be built coal or no coal, so there is nothing to gain or lose by opposing coal, except supporting the community (if one opposes coal) or political connections with Tagami (if one supports it).

        While it’s true that the union officials of Teamsters and Building Trades see some benefit in blindly supporting Tagami, but our studies show that this won’t actually result in any additional jobs for their members (and some of the rank and file in these unions have informed us that they also oppose coal exports, and they’re less than pleased with the conduct of their union officials).

        Also, a great many of us who’re part of the No Coal in Oakland group are union members; we’ve received no pay or material benefit for our efforts, nor do we expect to.

        Your dismissivness towards our willingness to support and give back to our communities simply doesn’t match reality.

      • You started this conversation by highlighting that union members looking out for their own interests was a good thing.

        If you’re advocating as a community member for what you think is good for the community, that’s great. Leave the unions out of it. When you bring the unions into it, I think most people are going to assume, as I do and as you implied in your first response, that you are advocating on behalf of union interests.

        When other unions are opposing your position, that’s another good indication that this is not about a health issue for the community. Are those unions opposed to the health of the community? Of course not. In some way, they likely benefit financially from coal. Which is fine.

        The unions, in recent history, have run roughshod over this community to try to achieve goals completely at odds with the interests of the local residents of Emeryville. As a result, we’re a bit suspicious of union advocates telling us that they’re looking out for us. They aren’t.

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