When Nathan Stout moved to Vallejo, by the San Francisco Bay, he wanted to get involved in the community. So he joined the citizens’ commission the city had formed to work on a new general plan. He was inspired by the project’s principles — resident involvement in planning, focus on the needs of South Vallejo, the city’s poorest neighborhood, and a beautiful, iconic waterfront.
Photo by Patrick Nouhailler
The citizens’ commission presented its vision at a meeting late last year. “We wanted to have open space on the waterfront — a green walkway, a promenade,” Stout said. But to the group’s surprise, “The city attorney told us we couldn’t do that because there was a pending project, so the industrial sites needed to remain industrial.”
The members of the General Plan Working Group — and pretty much everyone else in Vallejo — had been kept ignorant of a parallel planning process. Three city council members had been meeting in secret with local business leaders since April 2014 with the aim of getting the US Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a shipping channel between Vallejo and Mare Island, site of a former Navy shipyard. In its first few months, this Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee embraced a proposal for a massive project to build a deep-water port — Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT) — and a cement processing plant on the city’s south shore.
Residents first got wind of the project when the city quietly issued a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) last September. Longtime Vallejo resident Boudicca Todi recalled, “I read the whole thing and I just started crying. It was so obvious they were targeting this community to put in a toxic project.” Meanwhile fellow Vallejo resident Peter Brooks and a few friends got together to read over the report and discuss it. They immediately decided to form Fresh Air Vallejo to fight the project.
There were problems with the cement plant, Todi said, “but VMT is scarier.” The VMT proposal lists examples of bulk products the port might handle, such as feed grains, lumber, and steel. “’Such as,’” Todi emphasized. “That should scare anyone!” Vallejo residents were acutely aware that farther down the Bay, residents of Oakland were engaged in a massive battle to prevent their city from becoming a coal-export center. Especially after the residents won and Oakland banned coal shipments in June, Vallejo residents worried that coal exporters would look to them next.
But whatever cargo the port handles, South Vallejo resident Pat Dodson pointed, out, “The trucks will be three blocks from my house, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re going to kill everything out here — the trees, the grass, the wildlife, the fish in the sea — us!”
It’s not just the trucks. “Living next to a port is similar to living next to a coal power plant, with all the exhaust from trucks, ships, rail yards, and cranes,” wrote Lydia dePillis in the Washington Post last year, citing statistics on cancer rates and children’s health.
All these machines run on diesel fuel. “Long-term exposure to diesel exhaust particles poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant evaluated by OEHHA,” says the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. And, the OEHHA adds, “Exposure to diesel exhaust can have immediate health effects,” including asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms, coughs, headaches, and nausea.
Unlike existing Bay Area ports, Brooks points out, VMT has no plans to offer onshore electricity for ships, so “giant transpacific ships will sit there for six days burning diesel fuel.” And unlike San Francisco and Oakland, the proposed port would be privately owned. “That raises concerns about oversight,” Brooks said.
Then there’s the slag cement plant. ORCEM America, the company proposing to build the plant, promotes it as a “green” alternative to traditional cement manufacturing, which is named by the California Air Resources board as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, just after the oil industry. But manufacturing slag cement produces plenty of carbon dioxide, just less than traditional cement. That’s because it mixes traditional cement with “slag” – in this case ground-up waste from Chinese steel mills.
ORCEM plans to store the slag in heaps up to 40 feet high, but the company says it won’t be a problem because they will spray the material with water to keep down dust. And they say the slag will not contain toxic material. Critics are not convinced. They cite “Safety Data Sheets” from producers of steel-mill slag, which list toxic components including chromium-6 and calcium sulfide. Dodson echoed the concerns of other residents. In addition to harming people’s health, “That stuff’s going to spill and contaminate the water.”
With these dangers in mind, Todi said, “I showed up at the first meeting in October and there were hundreds of people who spoke out about this. This is with the city giving no publicity. We said, ‘Get this out of Vallejo!’ We started organizing volunteers to support Fresh Air Vallejo. I take information published by the city and broadcast it [on Facebook] so people actually show up to meetings. We send speakers to different neighborhood groups — every neighborhood we’ve spoken to has come out publically against it.”
More than 500 individuals, public agencies, and organizations wrote comments on the draft EIR. “The city is still trying to answer all these comments,” said Brooks “They thought they would begin construction last December. The compiling of questions and the public’s interest has definitely slowed this process down.”
Among other organizations expressing concern about the project, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District pointed to findings that the project would cause “significant and unavoidable air quality impacts,” adding that air pollution levels in the Bay Area are already high. The American Lung Association annual report card recently gave Bay Area air quality a “D.” Two environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and Baykeeper, filed comments opposing the project because of potential harm to air, water, and wildlife — but especially because they feared the port could be used to export coal.
More recently VMT has given verbal assurances that their port will not handle coal, petroleum coke, and other petroleum products. Jessica Yarnall Loarie, an attorney with the Sierra Club, responded, “We appreciate that the developers behind the new Vallejo Marine Terminal have ‘stated’ their intent not to ship dirty, dangerous fossil fuels through Vallejo. But as we just saw in Oakland, developers don’t always keep their promises. The City of Vallejo has a responsibility to get this agreement not to ship coal or other fossil fuels in writing in an enforceable manner, in order to protect the health and safety of Vallejo residents.” But even if that happened, the many Vallejo residents would continue to oppose the project.
While opposition mounted, VMT and ORCEM worked to develop support for the project. ORCEM CEO Steve Bryan spoke at community meetings, with a special push to meet with black churches, said Brooks — an echo of the strategy coal export promoters used in Oakland. It was at a meeting in a Baptist church, Brooks said, that Bryan spilled the beans about the secret Mare Island Straits Economic Development Committee.
The way Brooks remembers it, “A member of the church spoke about how cement factories cause pollution. Bryan said, ‘Well you might not like the cement factory, but I’ll tell you who does like it — two city council members and the vice mayor. We’ve been meeting with them for 20 months out at Mare Island.’”
Community groups reacted to this revelation by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records of the secret committee meetings. The documents showed that three members of the city council were regular members of the group, along with county, state, and federal legislative staffers and businesses with an interest in Mare Island Strait development, including VMT and ORCEM. City council members and senior city staff regularly performed tasks for the committee, although the documents showed some staff members were uncomfortable with this arrangement.
The committee avoided violating the letter of the Brown Act, the state open-meeting law, by making sure that a quorum of the city council was never present — even going so far as to tell one city council member to stay home when the mayor wanted to attend.
After this information came out, project opponent Stephen Hallett told members of the secret committee, “You knew the law, but you violated our trust.”
Documents provided through another public-records request revealed behind-the-scenes activity in the preparation of an “Environmental Justice Analysis” of the project. The development is planned for a site adjacent to South Vallejo, a low-income community where the asthma rate is twice the state’s average.
The city’s analysis acknowledged that the project would increase air pollution, noise, traffic, and other problems in South Vallejo, most of whose residents are people of color. But it concluded that, since many people of color live throughout Vallejo, the project would not have a “disproportionate impact” on minorities.
Documents revealed through the FOIA request showed that writers of the Environmental Justice Analysis considered comparing South Vallejo to Solano County as a whole. But that would have shown that the project indeed had a disproportionate impact on minorities. They decided instead to use only the city as a comparison. “This is an example of what it would be like dealing with these people if the project is approved,” Brooks said.
Most of the opposition to the VMT/ORCEM project is based on its environmental impact. But community residents also question the project’s claims for economic benefits.
In a six-page glossy mailer to Vallejo residents, the developers said the project would provide $500,000 a year in tax revenue and an estimated 189 jobs. In a letter to the editor of the Vallejo Times Herald, resident and economist JD Miller examined these claims. The estimated $500,000 annual tax revenue, he said, would hardly pay for wear and tear to city streets from hundreds of big-rig trucks traveling to and from the port every month. The $13 million the developers say they will spend to create those jobs comes to an average of a little over $68,000 a year. Since that would include many highly paid managerial and technical jobs — for which few Vallejo residents would qualify — Miller predicted that the few positions available to locals would not pay that well.
Vallejo residents are committed to continuing to fight this project, although Stout complained, “The city doesn’t communicate with us. They won’t even tell us when [the project is] going to come before the Planning Commission.” The city initially estimated it would produce a final Environmental Impact Review by early summer but has yet to release the document. According to the city’s website, public Planning Commission hearings to discuss the project “are anticipated in October 2016,” but no specific date has been set.
Opponents see a number of issues that could potentially derail the project: the increased air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, environmental racism, and the fact that the Bay Conservation and Development Commission has stated that the area doesn’t need any more commercial port capacity. “We’re going to try to stop it as best we can — run ‘em out of town,” said Dodson.
“I think we’re going to beat this thing,” Brooks said. “What happened in Oakland is inspiring people — that you can organize and you can win.”