US Judge scraps Oakland, California ban on coal shipments

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A federal judge in California on Tuesday struck down the city of Oakland’s ban on coal shipments at a proposed cargo terminal, siding with a developer who wants to use the site to transport Utah coal to Asia.

In a scathing ruling, US District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco said the information the city relied on to conclude that coal operations would pose a substantial health or safety danger to the public was “riddled with inaccuracies” and “faulty analyses, to the point that no reliable conclusion about health or safety dangers could be drawn from it.”

The decision cheered coal proponents while opponents said they would continue to fight for cleaner air. Oakland is reviewing its options and may appeal, said Justin Berton, a spokesman for Mayor Libby Schaaf.

The issue over coal has rocked then San Francisco Bay Area city that is environmentally friendly but also economically depressed in spots.

City leaders approved construction of a rail and marine terminal in 2013 as part of a larger makeover of an Army base that was shuttered in 1999. The USD250 million project in west Oakland is expected to bring thousands of jobs to a historically African-American neighbourhood that is among the poorest and most polluted in the region.

Oakland officials said coal was never mentioned as a possibility but lawyers for developers said city officials always knew there would be a mix of goods, including coal.

File photo shows the former Oakland Army Base pier with the Port of Oakland in the background in Oakland, California. – PHOTOS: AP
A federal judge in California struck down the city of Oakland’s ban on coal shipments at a proposed cargo terminal, siding with a developer who wants to use the site to transport Utah coal to Asia

Concerned about pollution caused by coal dust, the city moved in 2016 to ban shipments of coal and petroleum coke, a solid derived from oil refining. The decision came after Utah lawmakers approved a USD53 million investment to help ship the state’s coal through Oakland to Asia.

Utah Senator David Hinkins, a Republican who represents coal-producing counties, applauded the decision on Tuesday. “It would be good for my little depressed area,” he said.

Many Utah mines are now shipping through Mexico to reach markets in Japan and Korea, as the US market wanes, but a California shipping point would be closer and less expensive, he said.

Utah’s USD53 million would still be on the table, pending a committee approval, he said.

The government-watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah, meanwhile, said they were disappointed in the ruling, and said the public money would be better spent on local water systems or fire trucks rather than the port.

In a statement, Schaaf vowed to continue the fight. Alex Katz, chief of staff to Oakland’s city attorney, said they will discuss options with the City Council.

One of the developers of the project is Phil Tagami, a close friend of California Governor and former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. The governor’s environmental efforts have made him a global leader in the fight against climate change, but he hasn’t spoken out publicly against the project.