Toxic Coal Terminal in West Oakland Seems Imminent

A consistent target of environmental racism, West Oakland faces a proposed toxic fossil fuel export terminal that will harm the community.

Toxic Coal Terminal in West Oakland Seems Imminent (Getty Images)

I’ve lived in West Oakland for 14 years, but I’ve never once had a friend over. I was always ashamed to live in a neighborhood that was so different from all of my friends, most of which lived in upper-middle class areas of Oakland, like Montclair or Rockridge. 

I didn’t used to see the rich culture that West Oakland was built on, because I was so distracted by its differences from the rest of Oakland. What I hadn’t considered is what created those differences. Why hasn’t West Oakland thrived like the rest of the city has? What’s stopping it now? 

Being a predominantly Black, low-income community, West Oakland has been a target of environmental racism for almost a century — dating back to government supported redlining in the 1930s. 

Now, developer Phil Tagami and his company, Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), are fighting against the city to build a fossil fuel export terminal at the old West Oakland Army Base at the Port of Oakland. But the transportation and utilization of coal at the terminal would contribute to carbon emissions and douse West Oakland, a community already overwhelmed with some of the worst air quality in California, in toxic coal dust.

OBOT sues the city of Oakland

On Oct. 27, 2023, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Noël Wise issued a proposed decision which found that the city breached its contract with developer Phil Tagami by not granting him an extension amid delays in the planned construction of the export terminal. The decision is currently tentative, but if made final, it could allow Tagami to store and transport tons of coal at the city’s port before shipping it overseas.

This new development could cost Oakland residents millions in taxpayer dollars, despite the decade-long organizing efforts from city officials, West Oakland residents and environmental advocacy groups. 

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OBOT entered into an agreement with Oakland in 2013, and claims in the suit that the city sabotaged the project by creating an anti-coal ordinance. In 2016, the Oakland City Council voted to ban the handling and storage of coal in West Oakland. This was informed by decades of research confirming that being directly adjacent to the port forces West Oaklanders to endure the most detrimental effects of pollution — like high increases in cancer and asthma rates. 

Tagami and Oakland had briefly entered settlement discussions, but continued suing each other over the contract dispute. Now the developer is closing in on a legal victory that could dissolve efforts to prevent coal from being stored and transported through West Oakland. 

According to the lawsuit, filed by OBOT in 2018, the city “engaged in an uninterrupted pattern of delay and interference, all with the objective of preventing OBOT from completing this project.” Oakland argued that OBOT ruined their own project by missing construction milestones, and that the city has the right under the development agreement to enact health and safety regulations like a coal ban when evidence of danger to public health exists. 

Government supported pollution of communities of color

Environmental racism isn’t a new concept for West Oakland, whose air quality had been devastated by interstate construction. 

State Departments of Transportation in the United States have a long and documented history of systematically displacing communities of color. Neighborhoods have been divided — small business’s closed and main streets demolished, and this division has always hit minority communities the hardest. Oakland’s Interstate-980 is a prime example of the racism cemented into the untold history of highway construction. 

Built in 1985, I-980 became the third freeway to surround West Oakland alongside the MacArthur (I-580) and Cypress (I-880) freeways, which already disconnected the neighborhood from the rest of Oakland. The construction of the Cypress freeway resulted in 5000 homes being destroyed before its collapse in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Soon after, I-880 was rerouted along the Western and Southern borders of West Oakland, ensuring that the neighborhood was still encased in concrete barriers. 

These freeways were a physical manifestation of the redlining that was already taking place. In 1939, a government-backed Home Owners Loan Corporation created maps of “residential security,” in Oakland, which presented who was eligible for government-backed mortgages. These maps ranked areas from “Best” to “Hazardous” determined by “racial infiltration.” West Oakland was deemed hazardous due to its “detrimental influences” of lower economic classes and racial minority groups. 

Building I-980 separated the primarily poor community from social and economic opportunities. Its construction destroyed more than 500 homes, nearly two dozen businesses and multiple churches, while stripping West Oakland of its access to the revival experienced by Uptown Oakland. Residents of West Oakland should be able to walk to the near and bustling Uptown, but instead are blocked by the 2-mile long, 560 ft. wide freeway. 

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Environmental racism harms residents’ health

The other effects these highways had on West Oakland are detrimental. The Environmental Defense Fund shows that 50% of asthma cases in West Oakland are due to air pollution, whereas only 20% of cases in the Oakland Hills can be attributed to air quality. West Oakland has some of the highest asthma rates in California, in the 99th and 100th percentile, and notably poor access to healthy foods. Impacts on childhood asthma are the worst near highways and major roads. 

The freeways that surround the West, which are also designated truck routes, have trapped the neighborhood in exhaust, and the addition of coal exportation at the port would only worsen air quality. 

Oakland City Council and politicians at state and local levels are all in opposition to the threat of coal in Oakland. Alongside them is grassroots organization No Coal in Oakland, a community run campaign dedicated to protecting West Oakland’s climate, and residents from environmental racism. 

I didn’t know this was going on until a few months ago, when my mom sent me news about the developers of the coal terminal going to trial. But this fight began when I was in elementary school.

I’m in high school now, and learning about the community’s unwavering efforts inspires me to talk to people my age about what’s at stake. My community is already suffering from decades of environmental injustice. West Oakland doesn’t deserve to be invaded by coal carrying trains further polluting our air. 

Phoebe Lefebvre (she/her), is a high school student at Oakland School of the Arts focusing on creative nonfiction writing.

Edited by shaylyn martos

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