Coal Train in Oakland – People vs. Corporation


When I think about environmental justice, the first thing that comes to mind is Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, where he described a society where classes are not only divided by economic status but also have a prescribed intelligence to their social status. In his novel, the government has the power to physically dumb down their people, preventing them from enacting change against an oppressive power. When I heard that a coal train is being proposed to run through Oakland, I couldn’t help but notice some disturbing parallels. Coal dust- containing neurotoxins potent enough to severely lower someone’s IQ, is debated to be allowed to run through Oakland. This will decrease the IQ of disenfranchised communities. Because of their socioeconomic status, their rights to their health are being violated by big corporations, and the government is acting as a bystander.

Coal is well known for its reputation of being the dirtiest kind of energy. From years of research, we understand how bad particulates are for your health. It is also proven that transporting coal in an open train releases large amounts of coal dust.  Studies show that the soot generated from diesel exhaust created by the trains transporting coal is also toxic, and can exacerbate lung and cardiovascular disease.


We also know that combustion of coal leads to climate change, and we understand that climate change is having negative global implications.

Despite this, a plan to build a coal train and shipping terminal to increase the  United States’ national exports of coal by 19% is being proposed, and has gone unnoticed by a large majority of the Bay Area. A former Oakland Army Base is being developed as a bulk export facility by a developer named Phil Tagami. This man went behind the backs of the Oakland City Council to solicit a partnership with four Utah counties that could allow Utah to export up to 10 million tons of coal from their mines each year. The corporation in Utah agreed to give Tagami $53 million to buy space at Oakland Bulk Terminal for these coal exports. The coal is then planned to leave from Oakland and ship to Asia.When the developer negotiated the initial terms to use the army base as a shipping terminal, he promised residents that the facility would not export coal. Tagami has broken this promise.920x1240

Now, Tagami has sortedto bribing local churches (which are desperate for money) to support his campaign. He has told these people that the coal will have no health effects, which is false.

A set of toxicology studies have identified the health impacts of the chemical toxins; like respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, and neurological issues. Even in small concentrations, the heavy metals, such as mercury, present in the coal dust have the potency to lower someone’s IQ by seven points.

I am a student from the Bay Area, but I am from Marin County, just across the bay from Oakland. But if the someone heard a  coal train was being proposed where I live, you would probably be laughed at. A project like this would never occur where I Iive.

This is because the developer is targeting people of a certain socioeconomic status, people who do not have the time nor resources to fight back. And this is happening in hundreds of other situations.

It becomes clear that really this is an environmental justice issue: people are being denied the right to live in a healthy environment due to their socioeconomic status.

I am left wondering what exactly youth can do about this situation. As a young activist, I have noticed that it is extremely difficult to get the public concerned about an issue which they believe doesn’t effect them, or something like climate change; so big and abstract in people’s minds that they would rather not think about it. I’ve also seen my colleagues, already involved environmentally, who see the massive corporation we are up against and do not believe it is possible to stop them, thus ostrich syndrome sets in.

1425_3About a week ago, I decided it was time to take my head out of the sand. I pulled some of the local Bay Area youth together to talk about this issue, and how we can stop this disaster from happening. We asked a journalist experienced with environmentalism and big corporations. He told us that because coal has such a wide range of negative impacts, the best way to convince the more people to take action is by finding some aspect of what coal does and telling them how it will negatively impact them, making it personal. Now, we are going to focus on canvassing people in the affected areas, reaching out to youth who will be affected to help them speak out, and petitions galore!

What it all really comes down to is an environmentalist’s favorite term, the precautionary principle: If there is substantial evidence that some action will cause harm to people or the environment, measures should be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen. Another important part of the precautionary principle is that the burden of proof that it is not harmful is on the people/corporations trying to carry out the action, not the people who will be harmed.

Ultimately, the plan to export coal from Utah to Asia makes sense on no grounds. It is bad for the people, workers, and the environment. The United States also condones industrializing nations for their use of coal, yet now we will be supplying them with it.  Although it may appear that there are short term economic benefits to this venture, you have to remember that the external costs of coal far outweigh the economic benefits.

There is only question left to ask:

Will the Oakland City Council side with the people, or the corporations?

matt-wuerker-corporate-court-protectionDon’t be an ostrich! If you want to get involved in the Bay Area, click on the below links:



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