Just over the golden hills of Martinez, the descent into Pittsburg on California's Highway 4 opens a view of the Carquinez Strait. The strait is a narrow segment of the tidal estuary that accepts the rushing waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers as they empty into the San Francisco Bay. The vista paints a portrait of the transition to a clean energy economy: on the northern side of the strait, enormous turbines of the Shiloh Wind Power Plant revolve gracefully. Along the southern waterfront, an aging former PG&E power plant casts a shadow over massive, decaying fuel tanks next to Pittsburg’s newly revitalized downtown.
This is the stage of the Bay Area’s latest and biggest energy battle, between residents of Pittsburg and energy infrastructure company WesPac.
WesPac Energy wants to transform the PG&E site into a mega crude-by-rail facility, marine oil terminal, and refurbished tank farm. With plans to handle 242,000 barrels per day, the terminal would process one-fifth of all crude coming through California. The facility would deliver Bakken crude and tar sands to all five of the Bay Area’s refineries via new and expanded pipelines. In simple terms, WesPac is looking to turn Pittsburg into the crude hub of Northern California.
WesPac had been developing its proposal with the Pittsburg planning department for two years, but it wasn’t until a sunny Sunday in August 2013 that anyone really knew about it.
On this particular Sunday, longtime Pittsburg resident Lyana Monterrey happened upon a tiny notice in the Contra Costa Times for a public hearing on an environmental impact report. Alarmed at the tremendous risks and dangers posed by the project, Lyana knocked on her neighbor Kalli Graham’s door to tell her about the story she had read. Kalli and Lyana immediately started going door-to-door to alert their neighbors of WesPac’s plans. Neither of them had participated in community organizing before. They attended the city hearing the following day, met a few other concerned residents, and decided to take action.
“I just could not sit still. I could not do nothing about this,” Lyana recalled.
What started as a few neighbors raising their voices quickly grew into a tidal wave of community-led activism that’s swept the town of Pittsburg into the regional and national spotlight. 2013 has been tainted by a half dozen oil train derailments and explosions, including a deadly disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec that leveled a small town and killed 47 people. So, the prospect of “bombs-on-wheels” (as one community resident put it) rolling through Pittsburg on the daily has set the community ablaze with fierce opposition to WesPac.
Two diverse community led groups--the Pittsburg Defense Council and the Pittsburg Ethics Council--have emerged within the last six months to lead the campaign against the WesPac project, alongside ForestEthics and other NGO allies. Together, we’ve gathered over 4,000 petition signatures, organized a riveting Toxic Tour of the city’s heavy industrial sites, and conducted a bucket brigade air monitoring project that reveals striking levels of pollution in the community. We’ve flooded downtown Pittsburg with lawn signs, mobilized a January 11 march and rally that brought out over 300 residents, and organized a rally that packed Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Community leaders are meeting with city officials, training and empowering volunteers, and generating dozens of media hits. We’re gearing up to come out in full force as the Pittsburg Planning Commission and City Council vote on the project in coming months.
In August, WesPac and the City of Pittsburg saw the proposal as a done deal. But now the tide appears to be shifting in this Northern Bay Area town. Residents' rising voices have caught the attention of powerful interveners, including California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris. In an 11-page letter delivered to the Pittsburg Planning Department last week, Harris slammed the city’s Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report--what Lyana had seen in the paper--as legally inadequate. Her letter echoes concerns repeatedly raised by residents about the volatility of Bakken shale (think: exploding trains) and WesPac’s clandestine intentions to bring tar sands (think: un-cleanable spills) to the Bay Area.
Some believe that Harris’ letter leaves WesPac and the City of Pittsburg with no choice but to delay or withdraw the project’s proposal. If it moved forward as-is, they will risk being sued by the state.
The prospect of a David-vs.-Goliath victory in Pittsburg is a story that people across the United States need to hear.
The WesPac project is only one of 34 crude-by-rail terminals being proposed throughout the US today, along with countless pipelines, tank farms, and marine terminals. And despite the rapid increase in spills and accidents, the oil expansion rush continues. These terminals represent the unwavering haste of the oil industry to chase profit, regardless of the cost.
What the activists of Pittsburg remind us is that coordinated, strategic, grassroots organizing can effectively challenge even the most powerful industry. Courageous residents like Lyana and Kalli have inspired their friends and neighbors to engage. The feeling of being part of something so powerful has spread through the community like wildfire. Countless other towns will need such front line leadership and committed organizing to confront the onslaught of oil proposals throughout the US.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Pittsburg resident and Pittsburg Defence Council board member Lisa Graham told the city’s political leadership that she is working with a solar developer on a possible counter-proposal for the WesPac project site. The fight is far from over, but Pittsburg residents are already envisioning a clean energy future for their city. Perhaps in a few years, the view from Highway 4 will glimmer with solar panels instead of power plants. Perhaps Pittsburg will become a model for community-driven, environmentally just power.
Until then, Pittsburgians will keep on fighting for their city, and we at ForestEthics will be right beside them.