Oakland Puts a Big Stop on Massive Coal Project

On June 27, the Oakland, California City Council voted unanimously to block the handling and storage of large shipments of coal at a new proposed portside terminal. Joining us now to discuss the environmental justice victory in Oakland is Irene Gutierrez. She is an attorney in Earthjustice's California regional office, and much of her work has involved this issue.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Irene, let me start by asking you, how did you do it? Who was involved in getting this very local victory?

IRENE GUTIERREZ: Yeah. So, I cannot take sole credit. The legal team was just one, one part of the puzzle in making this happen. So I'm with Earthjustice, which is an impact litigation organization that focuses on doing environmental work. And we worked in partnership with groups like the Sierra Club, which also does high-impact work and organizes a lot in fighting coal port development and other types of practices involving coal extraction. And we worked very closely and relied a lot on the blood, sweat, and tears of local groups throughout Oakland. So groups like the Asian-Pacific Environmental Network, San Francisco Baykeeper, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, No Coal in Oakland, as well as labor groups like the SEIU, ILWU, and faith leaders. And frankly, just concerned citizens who didn't want this project in their backyard. And so it was really this, I think this great example of a broad coalition of folks coming together to work on a problem that affected their community.

PERIES: Now, one of the rallying cries in support of coal mining, coal export and development seem to be about jobs. And yet you had several labor unions involved in this effort. Tell us more about that, because when you even look at the Democratic Party Platform Committee and the struggle that's going on about, you know, in this case fracking and other environmental issues, jobs seems to be a big issue in the line.

GUTIERREZ: Yeah, yeah. Of course. And I'm certainly sympathetic towards the need for folks to have good jobs and to be able to put food on the table. But I think that that's precisely what the folks in the labor movement who oppose the coal project care about. They want to make sure that they have good, healthy jobs, and not jobs that are going to lead to their developing respiratory illnesses or furthering respiratory illnesses or furthering respiratory illnesses in the population. There was some really powerful testimony from--so there is actually an active coal port in Stockton, California, and there was some really powerful testimony at some of the public meetings earlier this year about this project, about how coal is a really--it's a really toxic commodity. So for the workers who are working with coal at the docks, it causes a lot of breathing problems, it makes it difficult for them to go home and really enjoy their time with their family. And folks, frankly, a lot of the folks who have worked with this product before find it dangerous and difficult to sustain work in loading coal at the docks.

PERIES: Now, one of your efforts was really to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior about a developer receiving $53 million for the project from Utah coal mining interests. And so tell us more about that.

GUTIERREZ: That was a colleague of mine, Ted Zukoski, who's based in our Denver office, put together that letter along with his colleague Chris Eaton. But in some--the point of that letter was to point out that Mineral Leasing Act funds are being funneled through this complicated shell game over on the Utah side to fund this coal port, this proposed coal port in Oakland. And that is not the correct use of those funds. The Mineral Leasing Act is an act which was in part set up so that when mining occurs in places like Utah, there is a tax levied on that activity, and the funds then get collected and ultimately should be redirected to help communities that have been affected by the mining industry. So the proper use of those funds would be to help remediate Utah communities that have been hit by the mining industry, not to send them out of state and use them for a project which would continue to perpetuate mining in Utah, and continue to perpetuate the ills associated with coal mining in Utah.

PERIES: Irene, I thank you for joining us today, and also want to congratulate you on the success of all of this, and look forward to hearing from you again.

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