Oakland's former Army Base seen from the air. The triangular slice of land on the left, known as the "West Gateway" was the location of a proposed coal export terminal. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

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City Attorney Barbara Parker announced today that a deal is in the works that would end a longstanding controversy over a proposed coal terminal in West Oakland—a complicated political and legal saga that’s been winding its way through City Hall and state and federal courts for six years.

According to Parker, the city is close to agreeing on a “framework” for a settlement with the developer of the proposed terminal, which would bring two outstanding lawsuits to an end. The settlement would allow for certain types of development on the city-owned land where the coal terminal was proposed, but would bar the transferring or handling of coal or other commodities that are “harmful to City residents.” 

“Agreement on the settlement framework is a major milestone,” Parker told The Oaklandside. The next step, she said, will be for all parties to agree on the specific language and details.

“I’m proud we’ve never wavered in our fight for cleaner air and a brighter future for Oakland, and we continue to unite as one city to keep coal out of Oakland,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Phil Tagami, the Oakland developer whose company is behind the project, did not respond to a request for an interview.

If it comes to fruition, the settlement will be a victory for Oakland environmental and community activists who’ve long opposed the plan to ship coal through Oakland.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but we have to make sure the city, when they’re negotiating the details, don’t make any mistakes,” said Lora Jo Foo, a member of the No Coal in Oakland coalition.

Foo said the City Attorney’s inclusion in the press release of harmful commodities other than coal is a positive sign, given environmentalists’ opposition to similar development projects in West Oakland. Foo pointed to the Eagle Rock Aggregates rock and sand facility at the port as one example of another type of bulk facility that could have harmful impacts. Some local environmental groups are also opposing this project.

Whatever the final terms might be, a settlement of the coal lawsuits would bring a long and bitter fight to an end.

Since 2013, Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, a company operated by Tagami, has sought to build a marine export terminal on city-owned land near the foot of the Bay Bridge. In 2015, it was revealed that Tagami and others were planning to transport millions of tons of coal through Oakland, storing it at the terminal. From there, coal would be loaded onto ships bound for Asia, where it would be burned in power plants.

This plan was met with fierce opposition by local environmental justice groups who feared coal dust would blow off trains and out of the terminal into Oakland and Bay Area neighborhoods, causing dangerous levels of air pollution and disproportionate harm to Black and brown communities living near the railroad lines.

In 2016, the Oakland City Council voted to ban coal handling and storage in the city.

Afterward, OBOT filed a lawsuit in federal court against Oakland, arguing the city breached its contract. In 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled against the city, allowing the coal terminal to move forward.

By then the project was facing other massive obstacles. Tagami’s partner, a company called Insight Terminal Solutions, was arranging future coal shipments from Utah and possibly other states, and planning to operate the terminal. But ITS fell into bankruptcy, and a judge stripped ownership of the company from John Siegel, a Kentucky-based coal industry executive, and gave it to a Los Angeles-based hedge fund run by investor Vikas Tandon. Tandon has continued to pursue development of the marine terminal, but in a recent meeting with Foo and other activists, he said he isn’t wedded to the idea of coal.

Also in 2018, Oakland decided that Tagami’s company had failed to meet construction milestones under its development agreement with the city. Oakland terminated OBOT’s lease for the waterfront property and moved to take control of the land.

Tagami countered by filing another lawsuit, this time in state court, accusing the city of wrongfully terminating the lease and blaming the construction delays on Oakland’s coal ban. Oakland responded by arguing that OBOT could have moved forward with building a marine export terminal to handle commodities other than coal, but the company failed to do so. 

In 2020, seeking to regain full control over the land, Oakland filed its own lawsuit against OBOT for breach of contract.

The two lawsuits were scheduled to go to trial next month. But if both parties agree to the settlement framework announced today, the cases will be dismissed.

The City Council must approve the settlement during an open session meeting for it to become final.

Community groups will be closely scrutinizing the settlement, said Foo, when details are made public. “The devil’s in the details,” she said. “We just have to watch carefully.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.