Environment

In Bid to Ship Unwanted Coal Overseas, Utah to Invest $53 Million in Oakland Export Facility

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- Faced with rapidly diminishing demand for coal in the U.S., Utah has approved a $53 million investment in an Oakland shipping terminal with the hopes of exporting it to less environmentally stringent markets overseas. 

The move has enraged environmental groups, and city leaders are also raising concerns. 

Earlier this month, Utah's Community Impact Fund Board endorsed the investment in Oakland's Terminal Logistics Solutions on behalf of four counties, three of which produce all of the state's 16 million tons of coal each year.

Terminal Logistics will start building the $250 million Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal at the Oakland Global Trade & Logistics Center later this year and hopes to finish the 35-acre project in 2017. 

"We know Oakland doesn't want coal coming through the city," said Jess Dervin-Ackerman, conservation manager for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We're ramping down the use of coal in the U.S. because we recognize it's a horrible source of pollution, and it contributes to climate change. This is city-owned land, and to us, it's the responsibility of the city to not let coal be exported." 

But Phil Tagami, the city-designated developer of the project, said his seven years of approvals and environmental entitlements secured to develop the former Oakland Army Base allow him to lease the space to a private company that can export just about anything except "nuclear waste, illegal immigrants, weapons and drugs." 

"It's not for me to determine," Tagami said. "We are entitled to have a bulk commodities terminal, and beyond that it's up to the market to determine what we export." 

Tagami said environmentalists opposed to coal exports are focusing on the wrong thing. 

"If people took a hard look at the household products they have under their sinks, they would freak out if they saw things like ammonia and chlorine in 55-gallon drums or in a rail tank car," he said. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she opposed the export of coal from Oakland. While on the City Council last May, she voted in favor of a resolution opposing the transportation of coal and crude oil through the city. 

"Obviously, we're going to work with our business partners to try and reach a mutually acceptable way of moving forward," Schaaf said. "This is a very important project for the city of Oakland, and this policy resolution is important also." 

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which is fighting expansion of coal mining rights on federal land in Utah, called the state's investment in the Oakland export terminal a "misguided last-ditch effort to keep their industry alive." 

"If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions, we have to do more than cap carbon at the smokestack," Nichols said. "We can't just ship it to someone else's backyard. That doesn't solve our climate problem. You factor in the carbon impact of shipping it by rail and then boating it oversees, and that's extremely energy intensive. It's the last thing we should be doing." 

In return for Utah's investment in Oakland, Utah will get a guarantee that it can send a certain amount of goods annually through the bulk shipping terminal. In addition to coal, Utah could also use it to export potash, limestone, salt and hay cubes. 

Utah is the country's 14th-largest coal producer in the United States with about 16 million tons each year. Coal mines in Utah and across the country are facing a bleak future if they don't find international markets, as domestic power plants switch over to natural gas or close because of upcoming federal regulations. 

"We're seeing power plants switching over to natural gas or closing because pollution control for coal-fired plants is too expensive," said Dave Tabet, energy and program manager for the Utah Geological Survey. "It was always a hope there would be a market in Asia because there is tremendous demand over there." 

Of the 16 million tons of coal produced in Utah each year, only about 1 million tons is currently exported internationally, Tabet said. Those exports currently go through the Port of Stockton, a privately owned port in Richmond called Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation and through the Port of Long Beach, he said. 

The Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond currently exports 1.2 million tons of coal a year from Colorado and Utah, a spokeswoman said. 

In Utah, the Community Impact Fund Board, under the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, approved the investment with no written reports or studies, just the oral testimony of officials in the four counties requesting the money. County representatives told the board the money needed to be approved quickly with a June deadline to sign agreements with Terminal Logistics Solutions. 

Jerry Bridges, president of Terminal Logistics Solutions, said the deal with Utah is still being negotiated. He said any product moved into the facility will be covered, so if it's coal there won't be coal dust blowing around from Utah to Oakland in open railroad cars. 

"None of it will ever see the light of day," Bridges said. "I'm not in the business of defending coal, I'm just saying if coal is a commodity that we allow through this facility, it's the cleanest coal available in the world marketplace. We want to make this terminal the most efficient, the most environmentally friendly one there is, so we don't get sideways with the environmental community. We want to make money, but we want to minimize the impacts on the environment." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley


Port of Oakland Truck Pollution Plummets

By Doug Oakley

OAKLAND -- Lung-damaging diesel air pollution at the Port of Oakland is down dramatically since a state law forced truckers to use cleaner burning engines starting in 2010, according to new data from a team of UC Berkeley researchers. 

And the gains in clean air likely are even greater because the law's emission limits became more stringent at the beginning of the year, after the study had ended, researchers said. 

Health experts say the numbers are good news for residents of West Oakland, where children had the third highest hospital admission rate for asthma in the state in 2010 behind Emeryville and Barstow. 

Thomas Kirchstetter, an air quality scientist at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and other researchers tested 2,000 trucks by dangling an air sampling device from a bridge over SeventhStreet in West Oakland, which is a route from Interstate 880 to the port. He started testing in 2009 before the 2010 law went into effect. Then he continued testing from 2010 through 2013 when trucks were required to put a diesel particle filter on their exhaust pipes. 

Kirchstetter found that particulates called black carbon decreased 76 percent while nitrogen oxides fell 53 percent from 2009 to 2013. 

In 2014, the new law was ratcheted up to require the 6,000 trucks going to the port each year to have 2007 or newer model engines that produce much less pollution than those with the filters. Kirchstetter has not studied the air since those regulations started but "we'll definitely see further reductions when we do," he said. 

Health experts say the decrease in port pollution likely is good news for West Oakland residents, but it's too soon to tell. 

"It is very encouraging that they have decreased pollution from diesel emissions," said Washington Burns, executive director of the Northern California Breathmobile, a mobile asthma treatment clinic which operates out of the Prescott-Joseph Center, a few blocks from the entrance to the port. "But I think we have to wait several more years to know for sure." 

Burns said anecdotally asthma among children in West Oakland has increased in recent years because more people are reporting it. His Breathmobile makes regular visits to schools in Alameda County including the Preparatory Literary Academy of Cultural Excellence that is near the entrance to the port. 

"When we first came here to the community in 2009 there was about 20 percent of children who had asthma," Burns said. "Now the schools are telling us it's higher." 

Nevertheless, it is well documented that diesel fumes can cause cancer, premature death and other health problems. California designated diesel pollution a "toxic air contaminant" in 1998. 

"Anything that improves the air pollution is going to improve health," said Brenda Yamashita, director of chronic disease for the Alameda County Health Department. "It's probably not going to affect the number of people diagnosed, but it could reduce asthma episodes." 

The Port of Oakland came to similar conclusions about the reduction of diesel truck pollution by studying data on how much pollution truck engines from specific years produce. From 2005 to 2012 as truck engine exhaust got cleaner, diesel particulate matter should have dropped 88 percent and nitrogen oxides 60 percent, said Tim Leong, an environmental scientist at the port. 

"The environmental benefits are pretty tremendous when you go to these newer engines," Leong said. "So we have measurable differences today from just a few years ago. Our efforts to work with the trucking community have paid off." 

In a separate study to see how a different set of pollution requirements on diesel trucks that don't go to ports is affecting the air, Kirchstetter is doing an air study in the eastbound lanes of the Caldecott Tunnel. One set of readings was taken last summer and more will be taken in 2015 and 2017, he said. 
Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Troubling Trend in Food Waste Recycling

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- Something strange has happened inside Alameda County garbage cans, and it has sounded an alarm for those working against climate change. 


Residents apparently hit a wall last year in separating kitchen food scraps from their garbage cans, seriously slowing a yearslong trend that became standard with curbside pickup across the county in 2008. 

It's strange because no one knows the reason the once popular program is wilting. 

"Green waste in garbage cans went up across the board, so we need to find out what caused that and reverse it," said Gary Wolff, executive director of StopWaste in Alameda County, whose organization compiled the data showing the decline in households that separate food scraps from garbage. 

What many residents may not know, recycling advocates say, is that the sometimes-messy task of putting food scraps into a different container and putting it in the green bin helps slow climate change. When separated, that food is sifted and tossed and turned into compost for farmers and gardeners. When people put food in trash cans, it goes to a landfill, where it turns into methane gas, is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. 

The data compiled by workers contracting with StopWaste, who randomly sample 3,000 residential and commercial garbage cans in 15 cities each year, show 2014 was a bad year for recycling food scraps compared with 2013. 

In Oakland, for example, about 16 percent of the trash in 2013 was food scraps. In 2014, that number rose to 38 percent. In eco-friendly Berkeley, those numbers rose from 15 percent in 2013 to 39 percent in 2014. Fremont's percentage went from 21 percent to 43 percent. 

Also in 2014, 47 percent of houses surveyed did not put out their green carts on pickup day, which was up from 28 percent in 2013, "indicating that fewer homes are participating in food scrap and organics recycling," StopWaste spokesman Jeff Becerra said. 

The big picture is a little more encouraging, Wolff said. 

In 2008, about 60 percent of the trash in Alameda County was food scraps, and now those numbers are down to about 45 percent. 

But last year's huge increase from the prior year is troubling, and there are several theories. 

People could simply be tired of doing it because it's too messy, they have forgotten the environmental reasons it's important, their incomes have risen and they are not as concerned about throwing away leftovers, or perhaps they are new to the area and don't know about the program. 

"It could be people are suffering from food waste fatigue," Wolff said. "They may think, 'I've been doing this for a year, it kind of smells, and I'm tired of it.'" 

Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager at Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where food and green matter is turned into marketable compost for farmers and gardeners, said food scraps generally take up between 3 percent and 7 percent of the volume of green containers that the company collects. 

One of her theories about the reason the county food scrap recycling program has slowed is because the better economy has brought to the area new residents who are unfamiliar with the program and its importance in fighting climate change. 

"Putting food in a curbside container for pickup is not very common throughout the country, and we here in the Bay Area are ahead of the curve," Jewell said. "When people are transported to the Bay Area from other places, it's not part of the normal move-in message." 

That message, she said, should be that "putting food in the green bin is a very simple way of having your own personal impact on climate change. You don't need to go out and buy a composting toilet -- just put food in your green bin." 

In Berkeley, the city collects 120 tons of food scraps and yard clippings a day and ships it off to a commercial compost-maker. That's about the same amount of trash it collects each day. 

City Recycling Program Manager Andrew Schneider said the recent data compiled by StopWaste was surprising and reason for concern. But like others watching the trend, he couldn't say the reason, for sure, it is happening. 

"We hope all residents make an effort to turn their food scraps into usable compost instead of trash," Schneider said. "When food waste and other organics are put in the trash and landfills, it creates greenhouse gases and climate change." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Despite Bird Deaths, Electric Wind Farm Wins Permit Extensions

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- An electric wind turbine company at the Altamont Pass can continue running 828 older generation windmills until 2018 despite estimates they will kill an estimated 1,600 birds during that time, following a 3-2 vote by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. 


The board overrode a vote of the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments to deny Altamont Winds, Inc., the right to run the older windmills. It also went against its own staff recommendation, the wishes of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Attorney General's office, Audubon California and others. 

Those opposing the permit extension for the company argued that the older wind turbines are killing too many birds. But Altamont Winds argued rodent poison and other factors are killing more birds than people think. 

"There is a significant amount of unknown bird death reasons," said Altamont Winds President Rick Koebbe, who added that if his permits were revoked, his company would go out of business. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service said 31 golden eagles have been killed by Altamont Winds' turbines since 2010. In a letter to supervisors, the agency said an extension would likely result in more eagle deaths, increase the company's liability and subject the county to increased scrutiny. 

And a statement from the state Attorney General's office said a permit extension would "create serious inequalities for other turbine operators and will undercut current efforts to repower." 

But County Supervisor Nate Miley said he was not convinced. 

"What people are saying is Altamont Winds is responsible for avian mortalities," Miley said. "I find that incredulous. Even when the turbines are turned off, the birds are still dying. I don't understand why folks are putting all that responsibility on them. It baffles me. I don't understand why people want to put this company out of business." 

County planners say the company's turbines are at least 20 years old and that newer windmills, which are taller and more out of the bird flyway, will kill fewer birds. Just one newer model turbine can produce the same amount of electricity as 18 to 20 older ones, industry representatives say. 

Audubon California estimated a three-year extension of the permits would kill up 1,600 birds, including golden eagles, burrowing owls, American kestrels and red-tailed hawks. 

Cindy Margulis, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon Society, argued against giving the company more time to swap its older turbines for newer ones. 

"We believe it is possible to do wind power properly, and the time has come to end this 1980s technology in the middle of the Bay Area," Margulis said. "It means a huge net gain for jobs in Alameda County when you take 828 old turbines and build new ones. You need all kinds of people for that." 

According to an agreement with Altamont Winds and Alameda County, the company was supposed to have finished the job by Oct. 31 of this year. 

"We knew there was a possibility we couldn't get everything done because of all the variables," Koebbe said. 

Alameda County's portion of the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, a 14,000 acre area between Livermore and Tracy, is in the midst of a major decommissioning of old turbines, with companies such as NextEra Energy and EDF Renewable Energy making progress on replacing old turbines with new ones. In 2007, the wind companies, Alameda County and several environmental groups settled a lawsuit and agreed to cut bird deaths in half and replace turbines by 2015. 

Altamont Winds did not participate in the agreement. 

In 2013, the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments agreed to allow Altamont Winds to continue operating all of its old turbines on the condition it would shut them down completely by Oct. 31, 2015. The company requested an extension in 2014. The zoning board unanimously rejected the request on Feb. 2. Altamont Winds appealed. 

Electric Wind Company Gave Thousands to Politicians Who Voted For It in Bird Death Issue

By Jeremy Thomas and Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- A wind farm operator donated more than $25,000 to three Alameda County supervisors who ignored strong environmental opposition and voted to allow the company to continue operating Altamont Pass turbines that have been blamed for scores of bird deaths. 

Altamont Winds has been a significant donor to Supervisor Scott Haggerty, and to a lesser extent Nate Miley and Richard Valle, according to campaign contribution records. 

Haggerty, Valle and Miley on March 24 voted in favor of extending the company's permit until 2018 in a controversial 3-2 decision. Estimates suggest the company's outdated windmills will kill thousands of birds over that period. 

Miley now says he wants to revisit the issue. 

Haggerty, whose district covers the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, vehemently denied that the campaign funds had anything to do with his vote. 

"I've voted on a lot of stuff over my career as a county supervisor, and never once has it ever been influenced by how much money a (company) has given me," Haggerty said. 

He said his decision was swayed most by the need for clean energy, maintaining local jobs and helping ranchers keep their lands through leases with the wind companies. 

Miley said the money had no influence over his decision either, and that he gave the company the "benefit of the doubt" on its claims that birds are dying from other causes. 

Haggerty received a total of $19,750 from Altamont Winds for campaigns in 2008, 2012 and 2016, including $5,000 for his 2016 run for re-election. Miley received $5,306 in increasing amounts since 2006, including $2,325 for his 2016 re-election. Valle accepted $764 from the company in 2013. 

Supervisor Keith Carson, who voted against the appeal, received $2,500 from Altamont Winds for his 2009 campaign, and $250 for his 2006 run. Wilma Chan, the other no vote, did not take any contributions from the company, according to county records. 

The supervisors' vote was slammed by opponents such as Audubon California and the East Bay Regional Park District. They say the extension means three more years of disastrous effects on the golden eagle population, which has seen a massive decline since turbines were first installed in the Altamont Pass in the 1980s. 

Miley said he relied on the company's report -- not the county's official numbers -- about bird deaths and expects the county will be sued over the decision. 

"I'd be willing to sit down and hear from these researchers and have them give me their concrete information around why they feel the information we received from AWI is erroneous," he said. "Maybe I just needed to have done more homework." 

Valle could not be reached for comment. 

Altamont Winds, along with other wind energy companies, has been told to replace outdated turbines with newer turbines the county says would reduce eagle deaths by up to 80 percent. Altamont Winds says its needs three more years to accomplish that and sought an extension until 2018 because it needed the revenue to fund the project and prevent layoffs. 

Carson said he believed the company has had plenty of time to meet the same obligations as the other operators who have committed to replacing all their older-generation turbines by October of this year. "The owners of the wind farm do make a lot of money, and they need to stand up to their obligations in a timely manner as their competitors did." 

Carson said he didn't think the votes were based on campaign contributions but did say there was hard lobbying by unions to approve the deal. The Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust is heavily invested in Altamont Winds, according to company President Rick Koebbe. 

The county estimates that 4,620 birds died on average each year in the Altamont area from 2005 through 2011, including 768 raptors -- golden eagles, American kestrels, burrowing owls and red-tailed hawks. Officials say there's no way to tell how many deaths were directly related to turbine collisions but say the single-biggest contributing factor is birds striking the turbines. 

According to a recent environmental report prepared by the county for the Altamont Winds extension, the company's turbines could kill more than 300 raptors over the next three years, including up to 15 golden eagles, 82 red-tailed hawks, 108 American kestrels and 142 burrowing owls. 

Koebbe called the county's numbers flat out wrong and said birds also die from other causes, such as from eating poisoned squirrels. 

"Our turbines don't kill birds," he said. "The birds accidentally run into the turbines. I don't care if the scientists disagree." 

Koebbe refused to answer specific questions related to the company's campaign contributions. 

"There's nothing wrong with donating to campaigns," Koebbe said. "There's nothing tied from donating to votes; that's ridiculous. It's illegal. There's no reason to talk about it." 

Audubon California's director of public policy, Mike Lynes, said he believed supervisors disregarded science in favor of economic considerations and bowed to pressure from labor unions. 

"It's clear that Alameda County cannot be relied upon to live up to its own statements about what it's going to do to protect birds while it provides wind energy in the Altamont," Lynes said. 

Dr. Shawn Smallwood, an independent researcher from UC Davis who has counted dead birds for Altamont Winds and the Scientific Review Committee, a five-member team that reviews bird deaths and makes recommendations to the county, said he was baffled by the decision. He estimated the decision would cause 10 golden eagle deaths per year. 


"Of course the wind turbines are killing a lot of birds out there," Smallwood said. "It's just preposterous to propose that the mortality caused by background factors is significant. Most of the birds we find dead in the Altamont are from wind turbines." 


Supreme Court: Big Pharma Must Pay for Prescription Drug Disposal

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- A groundbreaking law that forces the pharmaceutical industry to pay for collection and disposal of unused drugs passed its final test at the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.

And Alameda County officials who wrote the law predict the concept will spread across the country. 

Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the industry's challenge of Alameda County's law, which is intended to keep drugs out of the bay, the groundwater basin and the hands of abusers. A federal appeals court had earlier upheld the ordinance. 

"This was the pharmaceutical industry really trying to put the genie back in the bottle," said Art Shartsis, an outside attorney who defended a lawsuit filed by the pharmaceutical industry against Alameda County. "This is an innovative ordinance where a county required a particular industry to take responsibility of a post-consumer use that is dangerous to dispose of. I don't think there was another program like this in the country." 

Shartsis and Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who authored the law, said similar programs are expected soon in Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties and in King County in Washington state. 

The pharmaceutical industry estimated it will have to pay $1.2 million a year in Alameda County alone to follow the law. The county estimated the cost at about $330,000 a year. 

"But the cost is really insignificant," Shartsis said. "It will cost one penny for every $10 in drugs they sell in the county. It's about as minimal as you can get." 

The plaintiffs in the case, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, argued that the law interfered with the free flow of goods guaranteed in the Constitution's Interstate Commerce Clause. 

But they weren't able to find a court to go along. "We won at every stage," said Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler, who added that legal fees were over $500,000. "We're ecstatic, and we are looking forward as additional jurisdictions follow the lead of Alameda County." 

Ziegler said two plans already have been submitted by pharmaceutical industry groups to collect and destroy the drugs. Those plans are being reviewed by the county department of environmental health, which will oversee the program. 

The program run by the pharmaceutical industry in Alameda County will be rolled out over three years, and officials estimate there will be 110 sites for drug collection at police stations, pharmacies and hospitals, funded by the pharmaceutical industry. There are currently 30 drug take-back sites run by the county. For a list of the existing sites, go to http:// . 

Miley said he wrote the law at the urging of a now defunct organization that focused on drug abuse. The law also is designed to prevent contamination of the environment when pills and elixirs are flushed down the drain or thrown into garbage cans whose contents end up in landfills. It was modeled on legislation governing the safe disposal of tires, batteries and other potentially harmful goods. It prohibits drug companies from charging fees to pass the costs to local consumers. 

"People hold on to drugs and they don't know what to do with them," Miley said. The responsibility to dispose of them should be on business, he said. "Taxpayers should not have to pay for this." 

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said the need in the county is great. In September, her office participated in a drug take-back event and collected 799 pounds of pills in one day. 

"I have talked to mothers and fathers of children who have become addicted to prescription drugs," O'Malley said, "and when they run out, they turn to street drugs, and many of those children have died." 

The plaintiffs in the case issued a joint statement Tuesday that said the industry would "continue to actively work to educate consumers on the appropriate use of medicines, including providing information about safeguarding medicines in the home and promoting safe, secure and effective methods for disposal." 

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