AD 18 Candidates hold starkly different views on preventing a West Oakland Coal Terminal

  • Screenshot of California Secretary of State website for AD 18 Special Election, August 2021:

On August 31, voters in Assembly District 18 (most of Oakland, including West Oakland, as well as Alameda and San Leandro) will decide who represents them in Sacramento now that Rob Bonta has been appointed state Attorney General.

The two candidates, Janani Ramachandran and Mia Bonta, appeared on KQED’s August 16 Forum. Longtime NCIO campaign member lora jo foo called in to ask their positions on the Oakland coal terminal controversy. The following is a transcript of her question and the candidate’s responses:


lora jo foo: I’m lora jo foo, and I’m a resident of Oakland, and for the past seven years I’ve been part of the No Coal in Oakland campaign trying to keep developer Tagami from building a coal terminal down at the waterfront. As both candidates should know, the City of Oakland banned the shipment of coal through the city, and has been tied up in litigation, so the question I have for both candidates is regarding the proposed shipping terminal [next] to the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza, how do you think the conflict over whether or not to ship coal through the terminal should be resolved? If you are elected to represent the district that includes the waterfront property, what role could you play in resolving the controversy? 

Mia Bonta: I was absolutely in support of the work that you all have done and that many of us have done to insure that we remove the possibility of coal wreaking havoc, coming too close to our shores. We know the kind of health impact that that has on, particularly, our West Oakland community when we’ve allowed that to happen in terms of the toxins in the air. I believe that the City of Oakland made a deal, and it was unfortunately a bad deal for the City of Oakland, and I think that the way we need to get out of this particular commitment, to keep coal from coming anywhere near our shorelines, is to insure that we get out of that deal, and if it needs to be by settlement, then that’s what needs to be done. That’s what I believe. 

Janani Ramachandran: I’m very, very supportive of the No Coal in Oakland campaign, and grateful for the work that you’ve done to prevent rising levels of air pollution in West Oakland, that we’ve seen has been rising over the years because of unrestrained permits to polluting industries. And I’m proud to be supported and endorsed by organizations that were at the forefront of the No Coal in Oakland movement, including the ILWU, including 350 Bay Area Action, Communities for a Better Environment Action, and many others who were at the forefront of this movement, and know that I am going to be the Environmental Justice champion to work alongside all of you to make sure that we can make sure that we’re stopping the transportation of coal and getting out of this bad deal. Because, while a lot of other Environmental Justice bills regarding oil extraction and other industries are not as salient of a concern in our district, the transportation of coal certainly is. And when you have children in West Oakland, Black children in West Oakland, who are five to six times more likely to die of asthma because this is an EJ community already, we need to make sure we’re not adding to that by allowing further transportation of coal.

Alexis Madrigal (moderator): Thank you so much for those answers. And I just wanted to clarify one thing, Mia Bonta. On “settlement,” what that would probably mean is that we’d be paying the developers of the proposed coal terminal in order to get out of that deal. Is that what we’re talking about?

Mia Bonta: If it keeps us from keeping coal close to our shorelines, and it would allow us to be able to end, secondarily if we are allowed to be focused on coal exports so we don’t have shipping coal from Asia to Oakland, then I think that we need to insure that that happens. It’s an unfortunate part of where we are with that particular transaction.


We invited each candidate to review the transcript of her response and elaborate or clarify. Janani Ramachandran affirmed her response. Mia Bonta did not reply to our invitation as of the requested deadline.


UPDATE: Mia Bonta sent us a revised statement after we published and distributed her earlier comments. She wrote:

I absolutely support the No Coal in Oakland movement and the work you have done to remove the possibility of coal wreaking havoc on our West Oakland community. We know the kind of health impacts that coal can have passing through our communities, particularly our West Oakland community when it has been exposed to other environmental health hazards when we have allowed that to happen in terms of toxins in the air. I support the City of Oakland’s litigation against the developer, and believe the City must do everything in its power to keep coal from passing through Oakland. If the City of Oakland loses the litigation, then I would support a settlement to protect the public from coal passing through Oakland, and would fight for the state to support Oakland in whichever outcome keeps coal out of Oakland. The climate crisis is real, we must decarbonize our economy and rapidly begin sequestering existing atmospheric carbon, and so I oppose coal in Oakland both because of the health effects on the ground and because of the unsustainable impacts burning coal has on the climate.


Comment from NCIO Coordinating Committee

Mia Bonta’s original framing of the issues relies on a puzzling misunderstanding of the nature of the proposed coal terminal: its proposed purpose is to ship coal mined in Utah to Asia, not to receive shipments of coal from Asia. The proposal is not that coal might come to Oakland’s waterfront (“shorelines”) from overseas, but that coal might be transported by rail from Utah to California, and from there by ship to buyers (and coal-burning power plants) across the Pacific Ocean. Bonta corrected herself in the updated statement included above.

With respect to Bonta’s originally-expressed belief that the City of Oakland has little or no way out of “a bad deal” with developer Phil Tagami other than to pay a settlement to the developer, she seemed to be similarly unfamiliar with the history and current legal status of the matter. Bonta seems to have improved her understanding to inform her updated statement, included above.

To set the record straight, now that the difference between the candidates is less stark than originally referenced in this article’s headline:

When the City of Oakland was entering into the development agreement with Tagami, he said to Councilmember Dan Kalb that he would not ship coal through the bulk commodities terminal he proposed to build; he gave that same assurance in writing soon after the development agreement was signed. When the State of Utah offered him $50 million as startup funding to build a coal terminal, he reneged on his promise to the City. The City also included a provision in the development agreement that it could adopt new regulations if it found evidence of substantial danger to the health or safety of adjacent neighbors from activities at the export terminal. 

In 2016, having found evidence that a coal terminal would endanger the health of West Oakland residents, the City passed an ordinance to ban coal storage and handling in the city, and to apply that ban to Tagami’s bulk terminal project; the application of the ban to Tagami’s project was unfortunately overturned in federal court. 

The City and Tagami are now in state court. The City terminated Tagami’s lease and has asked the state court judge to evict him from the premises. Tagami sued to overturn the termination of the lease. These two cases will go to trial in March 2022. Meanwhile, a hedge fund manager, Vikas Tandon, who took over the sublease to build the waterfront export terminal after the prior sublessee went bankrupt, and who has sunk multi-million dollars into the project, wants piles of money to settle and end the coal project. But the City may yet win its state court lawsuit.

NCIO will work with whoever wins the election to take concrete action that keeps coal out of Oakland.