Oakland Retains Consultant to Study Impact of Coal Shipments

The Port of Oakland's Outer Harbor. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Oakland is paying a consultant $120,000 to study the potential health risks of shipping coal through a new bulk cargo terminal at the port.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a contract with Environmental Science Associates to help city staff investigate the health impacts of a project that could lead to the shipment of millions of tons of coal every year through the planned West Oakland port facility.

The vote came amid concerns from activists that ESA routinely works for fossil fuel companies and might not be objective in its analysis.

It's the latest development in a heightened debate over whether the city will allow the cargo terminal to handle coal, which would come from mines in Utah.

Last month, the state Senate passed a bill by Berkeley Democrat Loni Hancock requiring a new environmental report on a massive bulk cargo terminal slated to be built near the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza.

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Hancock recently released a survey of 5,000 Oakland residents that found 92 percent oppose shipping coal through the planned facility.

Over the last year environmentalists and some city residents have fought the coal proposal, urging lawmakers to block it. They came out in force to Tuesday night's council meeting.

"If we keep that coal in the ground in Utah, do you know what? We are helping China, we're helping Israel, we're helping Iraq breathe better air -- not only for this community but this is a global effort.," said the Rev. Ken Chambers of the Westside Baptist Church.

"If this coal train were being routed through Piedmont or Rockridge or upper Broadway we wouldn't be here tonight and there would not be a coal train coming through Oakland," said resident Patricia Lopez.

The state of Utah recently approved investing $53 million in the planned facility. Officials there hope the port will give Utah coal producers access to new markets overseas.

When the city considered proposals for the facility, called the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, lead developer Phil Tagami vowed it would not handle coal. Tagami and his partners now insist the Utah investment and the ability to handle coal are essential to the facility's success.

The Oakland City Council is expected to hear the results of the Environmental Science Associates study on June 27.