West Oakland Takes on King Coal
The historic neighborhood of West Oakland, California is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s last bastions of true grit. Local residents have battled unemployment, poverty, and crime. It was here almost 50 years ago that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale drafted the Black Panther Ten Point Program to declare the rights of the African-American community. Now local congregations have come together to fight for the health and safety of their community by standing up to King Coal and the barons of the fossil fuel industry.
Although the fight is local, the implications are international. If local congregations and their allies fail, the Oakland port will be used to transport American coal to Asia and beyond. Coal companies will continue destroying the land, water, and air to mine their product, communities will continue relying on dirty energy, carbon emissions will continue to increase, and climate change will continue to get worse.
The world needs West Oakland’s grit. Are they up for the task?
Constructing and Re-Constructing West Oakland
Some of the challenges modern-West Oakland faces can be traced back to the construction of the Oakland Army Base. When it opened in 1941, the base served as a hub of manufacturing, industry, and — most importantly — employment. But when the base closed after the Cold War, those jobs disappeared. In West Oakland, unemployment and crime rose while property values dropped and businesses left.
In 2012, Oakland entered into an agreement with California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG) to redevelop the base. The redevelopment promises to attract companies currently spread throughout the East Bay, bringing thousands of jobs to Oakland and reducing truck traffic on nearby freeways. The project also includes street and rail improvements for the port, construction of a deep water terminal, and relocation of two major recyclers from West Oakland neighborhoods to the base.
Coal Sparks Heated Opposition in Oakland
Although Phil Tagami, an Oakland resident and the CEO of CCIG, explicitly stated in a December 2013 newsletter that his company “has no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal-related operations at the former Oakland Army Base,” good investigatory reporting by the Richfield Reaper, a local Utah newspaper, and Darwin Bond Graham of the East Bay Express revealed plans to use Oakland as a shipping hub for Utah coal. This was news to Oakland city officials. They claim CCIG never informed them coal would be part of the product mix and the approval process would have been much different had CCIG identified coal as a product.
As expected, the possibility of coal in Oakland drew quick opposition from well-known environmental groups. But local clergy leaders were also quick to voice their opposition.
At an Oakland City Council hearing on October 20th, faith leaders delivered a letter, which raised concerns about health and safety impacts of coal in the community. “As a resident of West Oakland, a person with respiratory challenges and a faith leader, I am profoundly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of transporting coal through our city,” said Archdeacon of the diocese of California, Carolyn Bolton. “I strongly oppose the development of a coal terminal in our already vulnerable and highly impacted community.”
Is Coal Good for Oakland?
As opposition has grown in Oakland, rumors and misinformation about the benefits of transporting coal through the neighborhood have also spread. Some say the whole redevelopment project will be killed if the developer doesn’t have coal money to build. But the “No Coal in Oakland” campaign called the rumor “sheer folly” in a letter to the Oakland City Council. “The false portrayal of coal exports as Oakland’s pathway to abundant jobs is a fairy tale that the developer would not have dared present a few years ago,” they wrote.
The truth is trains filled with coal will bring more problems to the community than benefits. If the cars containing coal aren’t covered, coal dust may contaminate local air, soil, and water. If they are, the stored coal may spontaneously combust and catch fire. In a community that is already overburdened by air pollution, the illusory promise of more jobs doesn’t make long-term sense.
West Oakland Rises Up
The Oakland City Council is currently investigating coal’s impacts on health. Religious and environmental groups see this as a chance to educate and engage more people in Oakland.
“Coal is taking the community backwards,” Rev. Ken Chambers of West Side Missionary Baptist Church told EdenKeeper. “It’s not going to create jobs; it’s an automated system that’s going on a train rail.” The reverend is hosting meetings at his church to educate the neighborhood he’s called home for decades. He hopes to develop a strong grassroots effort to hold politicians accountable.
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, which has a long history of environmental engagement, is also mobilizing its congregants. “Urban, poor, and minority communities have been the dumping ground for environmental waste products for a long time and as a result there’s a long history of respiratory diseases in these communities,” said Rev. Kwasi Thornell of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.
What Will Oakland Do?
California isn’t normally ground-zero in the fight against coal. The state, and the Bay Area specifically, are typically climate action leaders. Recently, the California Legislature adopted SB185, which divested the state’s largest public pension systems from coal investments. In a recent trip to the Vatican, Governor Brown voiced his support for Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical and declared that unless we leave 90% of our coal in the ground, we will face climate disaster.
Despite California’s progressive climate policies and regulations, West Oakland is its own community. It’s their health, safety, and jobs on the line. Local clergy can educate their congregations about the different options and guide them toward the moral choice, but it’s up to residents to demonstrate their grit and fight for their neighborhood.
According to Rev. Will Scott of California Interfaith Power & Light, a faith group dedicated to climate action, there will be another meeting at West Side Missionary Baptist Church on November 16th at 6:30pm for people interested in taking action. If you’re a West Oakland local or just someone interested in fighting coal, attend the meeting and show your support. Who knows when the fight may come to your neighborhood.
“There are a lot of communities that need to have this conversation,” said Scott. “We need to raise our moral voices.”
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