An Assessment of the Health and Safety Implications of Coal Transport through Oakland


June 2016

Assessment of the health and safety implications of transporting coal through Oakland.

Executive Summary

A panel of public health experts considered the health and safety implications related to the potential transport, storage and handling of coal at the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT) proposed to be constructed on the former Oakland Army Base. The panel reviewed evidence submitted to the Oakland City Council in conjunction with a public hearing held on September 21, 2015 and identified and considered additional sources including scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, professional reports, press reports, and government data. The panel also conducted original calculations.This review was conducted in the context of the Oakland City Council’s upcoming decision concerning the proposed transport, storage, and handling of coal, which will be informed by public health and safety considerations for current and future Oakland workers and residents. Based on its review, the panel offers the following summary of its findings.

Transporting coal by rail through the City of Oakland and transferring it through the OBOT facility will increase exposures to air pollutants with known adverse health effects including deaths
  • Coal trains significantly increase concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the local community due to emissions of both coal dust and diesel exhaust.
  • PM2.5, at levels currently experienced in Oakland, is definitively associated with PM2.5, at levels currently experienced in Oakland, is definitively associated with premature death and increases in lung cancer, hospitalization for heart and lung disease, emergency room visits, asthma attacks, adverse birth outcomes, school and work loss and respiratory symptoms. Introduction of a new PM2.5 source will increase the risks of these poor health outcomes. Even brief spikes from the passing trains may increase health risks.
  • Increased emissions of coal and diesel pollutants will likely push current outdoor air concentrations above state, federal, and international air quality standards. However, the U.S. EPA and the World Health Organization (WHO) have determined there is no clear safe level of PM2.5 exposure and effects have been clearly documented below the standards.
  • Coal dust typically contains toxics such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and crystalline silica. These substances are of high health concern if inhaled or ingested and are known to cause cancer, fetal defects and neurological damage, even at very low doses. There are no known safe levels of exposure to these toxics. Atmospheric transport of pollutants generated from coal combustion in Asia back to the Bay Area has increased levels of PM2.5 and air toxics in Oakland.
There are no proven methods to eliminate or reduce the emission of these pollutants to a safe level
  • Use of covers for coal cars has been asserted to prevent emissions of coal dust, but this approach is largely experimental and has not been demonstrated in the field to be safe, reliable or effective. Since the panel could find no evidence that covers for coal train cars are currently in use in the U.S., it is impossible to vouch for their safety regarding the possibility of combustion due to the confinement of coal.
  • Use of surface sprays to coal for transport has been asserted to achieve partial emission control but such chemicals degrade over time. Through travel from Utah, the surfactants will degrade and will not significantly reduce coal dust emissions locally.
There are inherent hazards in transporting and handling coal, including the risk of catastrophic explosion
  • Since coal is inherently combustible, each step in its handling creates hazards for workers and nearby communities.
  • Project proponents assert that all inherent hazards can be managed by use of a closed facility that will enable transfers and storage to be completed in a confined space. We have not identified evidence of safety of these designs in comparable urban settings. Transporting and managing coal in confined spaces creates potential for suspension of coal dust in the air, which can be explosive. Coal dust also poses a hazard for workers if inhaled. Further, we are concerned that the Basis of Design documents do not actually indicate a truly closed system, meaning issues of fugitive dust typical to coal terminal facilities would apply In Oakland.
  • If the design plans were to be implemented, the City of Oakland would need to assure vigilance in monitoring, operation, oversight, and prompt remediation to ensure protection of workers, residents, and the environment. This would require active engagement throughout the duration of the facility’s operations. The level of oversight required, given the myriad opportunities for violation of safety and environmental protection, would be very difficult to enforce and is unlikely a reliable strategy for protecting health and safety.
The combustion of coal exported from OBOT will contribute to global climate change, resulting in additional adverse health risks to Oakland residents
  • If climate change continues to progress, it will cause significant impacts on the health of Oakland residents. These impacts include increased heat and ground level ozone-related mortality and morbidity, displacement and economic insecurity due to storm surges, and sea level rise, and flooding, especially in West Oakland, increased respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses caused by air pollution from more frequent wildfires, food insecurity resulting in worsened nutrition, and migration of disease vectors into the Oakland area as environmental conditions change.
  • West Oakland residents are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, including increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, heat-induced illness and death, and food and water insecurity.
  • There is a narrow window during which actions around the world can be taken to prevent catastrophic climate change by limiting the overall average temperature on Earth to no more than 1.5°C. On a cumulative basis, combustion of OBOT coal produces a significant fraction of the total amount of CO2 remaining for the whole world to burn over the next millennium while staying within this limit.
  • Exporting coal through OBOT will undermine the local, regional, state and international climate initiatives that will protect public health everywhere—including here in Oakland. In contrast, this investigation finds that coal slated for OBOT is likely to stay in the ground absent availability of this facility, making prohibition of coal a reasonable and effective method for Oakland to contribute to the effort to protect public health globally and in Oakland.
Impacts of coal transport and handling will be greatest in West Oakland, a neighborhood already burdened by significant and inequitable environmental hazards
  • Impacts of coal transport and handling will be greatest in West Oakland, a neighborhood already burdened by significant and inequitable environmental hazards
  • High prevalence of poverty, coexisting chronic diseases, and reduced access to health care or coping resources, will make those experiencing these exposures less resilient to disease and disability.
  • The transportation and handling of coal in Oakland introduces unique risks and challenges for West Oakland residents, and the implications of exposures are more complex. For example, coal trains in Oakland will add to noise exposures, which would reach levels that increase risk for disrupted sleep and reduced work and academic performance for residents living and working nearby. For vulnerable children, subsequent behavioral problems and reduced educational attainment can have far-reaching consequences.

Together, these findings span hundreds of sources that point in the same direction: If coal is transported, stored, and handled in Oakland, we can reasonably conclude that Oakland residents, in West Oakland in particular, will face increased exposure to several known hazards. It is highly likely that there will be increases in adverse health outcomes along with possible adverse safety outcomes.