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A Pastor's fight to keep coal out of Oakland

The portion of the former Oakland Army Base where developer Phil Tagami proposes to build the largest coal export facility on the West Coast.
Joshua Sirotiak
The portion of the former Oakland Army Base where developer Phil Tagami proposes to build the largest coal export facility on the West Coast.

This story aired in the July 10, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard. If you are able, press the play button above to listen.

It’s Sunday, and I’m at West Side Missionary Baptist Church, just off 7th Street in West Oakland. The church is tiny, literally a double-wide trailer. In the neighborhood there are homes, a post office, a liquor store, and the elevated BART tracks running down 7th. And while the church might be small, the spirit inside is anything but.

A pastor is leading the congregation in song. He sits behind a walnut-colored baby grand piano that could fill a concert hall ten times this size with its sound.

I’m here to meet Reverend Ken Chambers, a well-groomed man in his fifties, with a neat gray beard and stylish glasses. And while his church might be small, Reverend Chambers is part of a big fight: he’s trying to keep massive coal shipments from moving through this neighborhood. From the pulpit he reminds the assembled worshipers about an upcoming meeting held at the church for the No Coal In Oakland campaign.

Reverend Chambers

Reverend Chambers has been the lead pastor at West Side Missionary for 31 years. He took over from his father, who held the job for 21 years.

“So for the last 52 years,” Chambers says, “it's been a Chambers that has pastored the Westside Missionary Baptist Church.”

Reverend Chambers’ father moved his young family from Louisiana to Oakland in the fifties.  

He had fought in World War Two,” Chambers says. “He came home and he wasn't stooping down to no ‘supreme’ person because of the color of his skin. He just wasn’t doing it. So his parents wanted him to leave because he was gonna get killed in Louisiana.”

For as long as he can remember, Rev. Chambers’ life has been centered around this West Oakland church. It’s kept him tethered to a neighborhood and community that he’s seen change over the years.

“Seventh Street was like downtown Broadway in most cities,” he says. “It had banks, restaurants.”

But things changed.

“Post office was built, gentrified the community. Then BART came, eminent domain. Then the freeway came, eminent domain. So this community was just sliced apart, gentrified, all the money pulled out.”

All those changes – and the industry and traffic they brought – have affected the environment and the people that call this community home.

Along with Richmond to the north and Hunters Point across the bay in San Francisco, West Oakland makes up one vertex of what has been called a “triangle of pollution” in a region that prides itself on its ecological credentials.

And that pollution has consequences for the people that live here.

According to one report, kids younger than five living in West Oakland are 1.5 times more likely to visit the ER with severe asthma. And life expectancy in the neighborhood is a full seven-and-a-half years lower than Alameda county as a whole.

“We used to live on Filbert Street, here in West Oakland,” Chambers says. “My kids grew up with asthma. I contracted kidney cancer. We're just one family, I'm talking from my own family experience of asthma and cancer.”

The Coal Question

Reverend Chambers says the trend of polluting West Oakland isn’t stopping. In fact, one development could make things significantly worse: a plan to shipcoal through the Port of Oakland.

If that happens, freight trains a mile long will start traveling just down the road from West Side Missionary, pulling open cars loaded with coal. The City estimates that each coal train could lose up to 60,000 pounds of coal and coal dust on its way to Oakland. The dust contains tiny particles which stay suspended in the air and get inhaled into peoples’ lungs. The EPA says this could lead to aggravated asthma, heart attacks and even death.

Rev. Chambers and other environmental activists are worried this community will bear the brunt of it. The way he sees it, this is a “toxic environmental injustice for this community. It’s already contaminated. Why bring coal to this community?”

“I stood up against that coalition of maybe 55, 60 pastors in this city that were looking at the money element,” says Chambers. “I looked at the social environmental justice of it.”

The Secret Deal

The story of the coal plan goes back more than a decade, and it’s centered around the former Oakland Army Base. Local Developer Phil Tagami leased the land and proposed to build something called the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal there. The terminal would increase capacity at the port and allow things like grain and ore to be shipped through it.

In 2013, Tagami said that he had no intention of shipping coal through his terminal. But behind the scenes, he inked a deal with four counties in Utah that are home to the majority of the state’s coal mines: in exchange for $53 million in funding, those Utah counties were guaranteed nearly half of the terminal’s shipping capacity.

A few years later, word of Tagami’s deal got out, and there was immediate opposition from Oakland residents. So the Tagami group went into damage control, lobbying city officials, environmental activists and Black church leaders.

I stood up against that coalition of maybe 55, 60 pastors in this city that were looking at the money element,” says Chambers. “I looked at the social environmental justice of it.”

Reverend Chambers says that he was in a meeting where Tagami’s representative offered the assembled Black pastors millions for their support.

I stood up against him because it's my congregants, it's my family that's living in this community.”

Sistah To

One of those congregants is To Niya Scott-Smith. She says folks around here call her Sistah To.

I have systemic lupus,” says Sistah To. “So I don't need any type of pollution affecting my system. Because anything that affects me, my body overreacts to everything.”

Sistah To moved to West Oakland in 1987. She’s opposed to coal being shipped through The Town. For her own health, but also her family’s.

“Not only am I now suffering from asthma,” she says, “my mom is suffering from asthma. My son and daughter are suffering from asthma and their children are suffering from asthma.”

That asthma could get worse if coal dust starts floating around in the air. The way Sistah To sees it, people’s concern is selective when it comes to her community.

“With all these outsiders moving in here, they're not going to want that pollution coming over here with their children. But they don't care about it polluting our children and our legacy. As matter of fact, they want to use it as a tool to get us out of here,” she says.

After hearing concerns like Sistah To’s from so many people, Reverend Chambers founded his own group, the Interfaith Council of Alameda County, organized around stopping the coal plan. In 2016, working with youth and environmental activists, they started lobbying the City. And their efforts paid off: that year, the City Council voted unanimously to ban coal's storage and handling in Oakland. But Tagami sued in return. He asked a federal judge to overturn the City’s ban, specifically for his coal terminal.

Tagami won at trial and The City appealed. But they lost. The Court said they hadn’t presented enough evidence to prove that coal shipments through the terminal would pose a health risk to Oakland residents. But for the City, Reverend Chambers and his congregants, the fight didn’t end there.

The Next Chapter

During Sunday service, at West Side Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Chambers reminds people there’s another big set of lawsuits around the corner. This week, a trial begins that could determine the fate of coal in Oakland for good. The City is saying Tagami breached his contract by failing to meet construction deadlines. Tagami argues it’s the city’s fault and he wants millions for the trouble.

After the sermon’s been preached and the collection plate’s been passed, Reverend Chambers sends folks on their way. If the City wins at trial this summer, Reverend Chambers and his congregation will be able to breathe a sigh of relief in their fight against coal. But if the City loses, they’ll be here to fight another day.

Editors Note: A pervious version of this story stated that "the City Council voted unanimously to ban the shipment of coal through Oakland" but it has now been corrected to "the City Council voted unanimously to ban coal's storage and handling in Oakland."

Joshua Sirotiak is an environment reporter for KALW in San Francisco. He's a working musician, father and self-proclaimed nerd who has previously produced audio journalism for NBC News and Chicago Public Media.