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Citing potential impacts of coal dust on public health and safety, Oakland city staffers are recommending that elected leaders of this Bay Area city ban coal storage, effectively derailing Utah's hopes of moving its coal through an export terminal proposed for a deep-water port under development on city-owned property.
The Oakland City Council is holding a special meeting Monday evening to discuss a 200-page report prepared by an outside consultant and consider a proposed ordinance prohibiting the handling and storage of coal and coke in Oakland, the busy port city between Berkeley and Hayward.
The proposed ordinance targets the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), a project that coal-producing Utah counties seek to invest in as a way to secure throughput capacity for Utah commodities which they say could also include potash, salt and alfalfa.
Existing state and federal laws and regulations are not sufficient to protect Oakland residents from fugitive coal dust that could escape into the environment if coal is transloaded at a deep-water marine terminal envisioned for the former Oakland Army Base, according to a memo assistant city administrator Claudia Cappio submitted to the City Council this week.
"The ordinance would protect and improve air quality and reduce [greenhouse gas emissions]; reduce the transport of hazardous materials through and within the City of Oakland; improve water and soil quality, and minimize the strain on local services that would need to respond to potential emergencies by prohibiting these facilities," she wrote.
OBAT, a 30-acre, $250 million piece of the former Army base redevelopment project, has been a lightning rod of controversy for that past year, ever since Utah's interest in the project surfaced. The developers had previously promised city officials coal would not be moved through the terminal, but that was before the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board, or CIB, voted to loan four counties $53 million to invest in the project in exchange for half OBOT's 10-million-ton loading capacity.
To investigate health and safety implications of coal handling, Oakland officials hired Environmental Science Associates (ESA), whose report was released Friday. The consultant concluded that emissions associated with coal-handling operations at OBOT could lead to additional violations of ambient air quality standards for particulate matter and harm an already disadvantaged community.
West Oakland, the neighborhood next to the port, is already saddled with poor health indicators, such as high rates of asthma and other pollution-induced illnesses. One study concluded that an African-American resident here can expect to live 10 to 15 years fewer than a white resident of the Oakland Hills.
ESA's findings were similar, though not as strident as those of an assessment issued last week issued by an independent panel of public-health experts.
That group argued coal would threaten the public health in the East Bay and called on Oakland to block shipments.
"We could not find evidence that the proposed mitigation measures would effectively protect Oakland's residents; to the contrary, our investigation suggests the possibility that these very measures may introduce new hazards into the city," said co-author Heather Kuiper, an Oakland-based public-health consultant.
But Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter, whose county is leading the four-county investment in the terminal, dismissed this panel's finding, claiming they could never stand up to scientific scrutiny and are based on faulty assumptions.
"Why is it that we [in Carbon County, where the coal originates] do not have an air-quality issue or dust issue? The loaded coal is transported through downtown Wellington, Price and Helper. Why is it that other communities the unit trains go through do not have an issue?"
Potter believes Oakland's opposition to Utah coal is driven by a larger agenda that has nothing to do with local public health and everything to do with keeping coal in the ground.
"Look at the report, most of the people [who wrote it] are from Berkeley or a special interest group," he said. The report, released by a group called Human Impact, is riddled with inaccuracies and "emotional hyperbole," he said.
The marine terminal's proponent, Terminal Logistics Solutions, has claimed OBOT would support hundreds of local jobs and that dust emissions would be negligible because the coal would be shipped from Utah in covered rail cars. The coal be unloaded and conveyed onto ships in fully enclosed structures.
Such facilities have not been widely used for coal handling and little is known about their effectiveness for reducing emissions, ESA reported.
Potter said such domes are in use in many places.
The consultant estimated that more than 15 tons of coal dust per day would come off the trains during the 200-mile California portion of the trip. ESA predicted the rail shipments would deposit 253 pounds a day on West Oakland.
Potter's calculations peg the amount of dust is closer to 1.29 tons a year, or just 7 pounds a day.
The consultant's calculations are based on Utah shipping coal in 400 "unit trains" a year, each hauling 105 cars with a payload of 110 metric tons each. A unit train is long string of cars moving a single commodity to a single destination.
The current practice of topping the coal in open-top rail cars with chemical agents may not be that effective, the consultants said, because these surfactants break down and may not offer much protection.
Additionally, coal dust settled to the bottom of the rail cars and could escape out the bottom. Once on the tracks, the dust would be blown around with each passing of a train.
Making matters worse for East Bay cities are the prevailing winds out of the west, according to the ESA report. These winds would blow any emissions from the trains over Oakland, Emeryville and San Leandro.
Potter countered that the trains move very slowly through cities and typical winds off the Bay are not that strong, averaging between 5.7 and 8.8 mph.
"At 7 mph it is really questionable if any dust could be blown off a 'seasoned' rail car, after an 800-mile trip," he argued.