US judge scraps Oakland, California, ban on coal shipments

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, U.S. 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 $250 million project in west Oakland is expected to bring thousands of jobs to a historically African-American neighborhood 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.

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 $53 million investment to help ship the state's coal through Oakland to Asia.

Utah Sen. 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 U.S. market wanes, but a California shipping point would be closer and less expensive, he said.

Utah's $53 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 Gov. 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.

Chhabria agreed with attorneys for developers that the city relied on a flawed analysis to justify its ban. As an example, he said the city failed to factor in covers on the coal-carrying rail cars in its emissions estimates for the project.

It also had no meaningful assessment of how emissions would affect air quality in Oakland, he said.

The city's opposition to coal operations appeared to stem largely from concerns about global warming, but it was "facially ridiculous to suggest that this one operation resulting in the consumption of coal in other countries will, in the grand scheme of things, pose a substantial global warming-related danger to people in Oakland," the judge said.


Associated Press writer Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.