Oakland Post’s coal op-ed is riddled with errors
Late last month, Paul Cobb, publisher of the Oakland Post, wrote an opinion piece criticizing Oakland’s officials for refusing to negotiate a resolution to the dispute over a coal terminal developers want to build next to the Bay Bridge toll plaza. In fact, it is the developers who have not responded to City requests to reach a settlement.
The opinion piece, titled “Time for the Mayor and the City to stop the Madness and Settle the Coal Dispute,” was published on the front page of the March 24-30, 2021 print edition (datelined March 25, 2021 on the paper’s website). It makes the false claim that the City of Oakland has declined invitations to meet with would-be West Gateway developer Phil Tagami, and Vikas Tandon — the Autumn Wind Lending hedge fund manager who now owns ITS, Tagami’s longtime sub-lessee — to discuss and attempt to resolve ongoing disputes over how to develop the proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT) on the city’s waterfront.
The truth is exactly opposite from the op-ed’s claim.
According to a letter of April 2, 2021 from Oakland City Administrator Edward D. Reiskin to OBOT principal Tagami and Autumn Wind’s Tandon, the City of Oakland has repeatedly communicated its “interest in engaging in mediation to attempt to facilitate a resolution of the pending litigation.”
The letter, a public record obtained from the City by NCIO, references “months of conversations between the City and OBOT regarding potential settlement options,” followed by correspondence of December 4, 2020 to Tagami, and a follow-up response to Tandon on February 8, 2021 — dates that are weeks or months earlier than the Post’s late-March op-ed. Reiskin’s letter indicates that it is the City that has received no response to good faith overtures, the opposite of the Post’s assertion.
Moreover, Reiskin calls out misinformation provided to the City Council and the public regarding Oakland’s continued interest “in discussing potential forward-looking solutions to this dispute that would … put an end to the pending litigation” — and does so in a way that implicitly chastises Tagami and Tandon, indicating that the misinformation is “contrary to my direct communications with both of you.”
Oakland’s city government has clearly expressed its interest in sitting down with Tagami and Tandon to “settle the coal dispute” as Mr. Cobb’s op-ed put it. Did Tagami and/or Tandon tell the Oakland Post publisher otherwise? Who else but Tagami, Tandon, or their hired shills have an interest in spreading such falsehoods? And for what purpose?
There are other errors in the Oakland Post piece that need to be corrected:
- From the Post op-ed: “For nearly a decade, the city has been fighting about the potential shipment of coal at a proposed bulk commodity terminal at the former Oakland Army Base.” The actual timeline: In April 2015, and not a single month before, community members learned that Tagami, despite promising in writing not to do so, had signed a deal to ship coal through his proposed bulk terminal. In July 2015, the Oakland City Council agreed to hold a hearing on the topic of shipping coal through OBOT. The City Council voted unanimously in June 2016 to ban coal transport and storage in Oakland. From June 2016 to April 2021 is less than five years, not “nearly a decade.”
- From the Post op-ed: “Already, the federal courts have indicated that the city cannot deny the right to ship coal. […] Thus, it appears that the city has already lost on the issue of whether it has the right to ban coal.” This completely misstates the court’s ruling. In fact, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria only ruled that the City failed to gather sufficient evidence to apply a valid 2016 ban on transport or storage of coal through the City to Tagami’s OBOT. That is, the coal ban itself was not categorically overturned; Judge Chhabria only ruled that the previously-executed contract between the City and Tagami required the City to come up with stronger evidence of health and safety hazards to block coal shipments under Tagami’s lease. Moreover, Judge Chhabria explicitly noted at the conclusion of his decision that Oakland is not constrained from future regulation, writing: “The City remains free, of course, to pursue future regulation of the project so long as it complies with its legal obligations, including any legitimate contractual obligations to the project developers.” So the truth is that Federal courts have not settled the question of shipping coal through Oakland.
- From the Post op-ed: “The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld a May 15, 2018 ruling by US District Court Judge Vince Chhabria that the city of Oakland failed to prove that the transportation of coal posed a health and safety hazard to residents.” Actually, Chhabria’s ruling focused on only one of three reports that the Oakland City Council relied on in voting to ban transport or storage of coal through the City, and specifically on its role in determining whether that (valid) ban could be applied to the pre-existing contract between the City and Tagami. The Ninth Circuit’s majority opinion affirmed only Chhabria’s narrow ruling on a question of contract law, and finished with a warning against drawing overly broad conclusions from its decision: “In affirming, we do not opine on the ultimate issue of any alleged health or safety impact of OBOT’s proposed plan. Nor do we judge the economic or environmental merits of the Agreement to develop a commercial terminal that may house and transport coal.” Sure, coal’s health and safety hazards are disputed by self-interested parties who wish to profit from mining, transporting, and burning it; but coal’s hazards have not been disproven.
So what’s really going on here?
It seems clear (see previous reporting) that Vikas Tandon’s hedge fund has shelled out approximately $17 million for a contested right to develop 19 acres of West Oakland waterfront. That right will continue to be litigated in California courts if the parties don’t settle (which the City of Oakland has already indicated it is ready to discuss).
As to developing a coal terminal, a major obstacle for the developers has been their failure to obtain financial backing. The Insight Terminal Solutions (ITS) bankruptcy that ended with lender Autumn Wind’s gaining control of the sublease was a direct result of ousted ITS CEO John Siegel’s inability to secure financing for that toxic use of the West Gateway property — a failure Siegel admitted fully and frankly in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In other words, shipping coal through Oakland is a poisonous fantasy that nobody wants to invest in at this point in the historic decline of the coal industry.
If Tagami and Tandon are peddling falsehoods like those published in the Oakland Post last month, they are no friends of the city … or of the Post and its publisher. Instead, their alliance looks an awful lot like an attempt to bilk the people of Oakland to compensate for the poor business judgement of those who tried and failed to secure funding for infrastructure to serve the dying coal industry. If this is their intent, Oakland’s publicly owned waterfront is being held hostage to Tagami and Tandon’s fantasy of getting rich at the expense of Oakland’s taxpayers (and the planet’s environment).
It is our sincere hope that Post publisher Paul Cobb will fully investigate and clearly inform his readers of this sordid story’s actual facts.
You can help blunt the effect of this misinformation! If you live in Oakland, please let your City Councilmember and/or the Mayor know that you support their continued, firm stance against coal — and that you’re not fooled by fake news. NCIO has set up a Google Form that lists e-mail addresses & phone numbers for city officials, along with a very brief survey to help track our community’s contacts with the City.