Coal From Utah Threatens the Bay With Pollution

Sep 1, 2015
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

What would the San Francisco Bay be like if toxic coal dust blew into its waters every day? Would fish grow abnormally? Would shellfish be laced with arsenic? Would toxic pollutants in fish harm people who rely on the Bay as a food source?  We could soon find out, if the export of coal from a planned Oakland shipping terminal is approved. And that’s why Baykeeper is working to stop it.

The Oakland terminal would export up to nine million tons of coal each year. The coal would arrive in long freight trains from Utah, shedding dust along tracks that run near the San Francisco Bay shoreline and residential communities. According to the rail industry’s own calculations, each open coal car loses between 500 and 2,000 pounds of dust and coal during its journey. Additional coal could be blown into the Bay if the export facility on the Oakland shoreline is not completely enclosed. Coal could also be spilled into the Bay if flawed (but still common) procedures are used to load coal onto outbound ships. 

Not enough scientific research has been done on coal dust’s effects on wildlife in a body of water like San Francisco Bay. But the conclusions of existing research are enough to cause concern.

Coal contains arsenic, lead and other toxics. Shellfish eat by filtering water, so they ingest dust and tiny coal particles. Small bottom-dwelling Bay creatures also take in coal dust. Small bottom-dwellers and shellfish are the main food source for many fish. One toxic substance found in coal dust (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs) interferes with reproduction in fish and has been found to convert into a cancer-causing substance in the tissues of young salmon. Coal toxics may also move up the food chain through fish tissue to impact harbor seals and shoreline birds.

And Bay Area residents eat fish caught from San Francisco Bay piers and shorelines. With some species of Bay fish already unsafe to eat because of mercury pollution, it’s disturbing to think of adding yet another source of food contamination to our waters.

In addition to polluting San Francisco Bay, coal dust carried in open train cars would blow into neighborhoods near railroad tracks in cities that include Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond, and West Oakland. Research links coal dust to asthma—which is already a problem in West Oakland—as well as bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and heart disease.

Opposition to long coal trains on the Bay’s shore is growing. Along with 80 other local organizations, small business owners, and elected officials, Baykeeper has joined with the Sierra Club to urge Oakland leaders to prohibit coal export from Oakland. Twelve thousand people have signed a Sierra Club petition against coal export. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other Bay Area leaders have taken a public stand against it. On September 21, the Oakland City Council will hold a public hearing on the public health impacts of shipping coal through the city by train.

The export terminal is slated to be built on land owned by the city of Oakland, so Oakland leaders have the authority to prohibit using it for shipping coal. However, the terminal’s developer has been moving ahead on coal export, and a company has already been chosen to operate the terminal.

To create additional pressure for stopping coal export from Oakland, Baykeeper has also joined opposition at the source of the coal. Four coal-producing Utah counties have agreed to put up $53 million for the Oakland terminal construction. Baykeeper is working with Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice and Utah Waterkeeper organizations to get that $53 million in coal terminal funding cut off.  

Coal trains don’t belong on San Francisco Bay’s shoreline, or in Bay Area neighborhoods. Join with Baykeeper in saying no to the export of coal from Oakland.

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