Community Activists Help Kill Big Oil Terminal in East Bay


A planned project for a massive crude oil terminal in the East Bay is now dead after more than two years of community protest. Last month, WesPac Energy Group quietly withdrew its application to ship crude oil into the city and store it in rebuilt tanks located in a residential area near downtown Pittsburg in Contra Costa County. WesPac spokesperson Art Diefenbach told the Contra Costa Times that the company’s decision was the result of current low prices for oil, although he acknowledged that community opposition was also a factor.

Activists with the Pittsburg Defense Council demonstrate against the proposed WesPac oil terminal in 2014. - PITTSBURG DEFENSE COUNCIL/FILE PHOTO
  • Pittsburg Defense Council/File photo
  • Activists with the Pittsburg Defense Council demonstrate against the proposed WesPac oil terminal in 2014.
“I know the oil industry is taking a turn for the worse with the glut of oil,” said Pittsburg resident Lyanna Monterrey, a leader of the opposition to the project. “But we were a thorn in their side. We delayed it long enough for the downturn to happen.”

Like most residents, Monterrey learned about the proposed project more than two years after WesPac first filed its application to the city in summer 2011. The city council, she commented, “did not do a good job to let us know this was coming.”

Monterrey added that when she heard about the proposal in the fall of 2013, she felt “it was wrong to put something like this in the middle of the city. It wasn’t safe. I knew if people knew about it they would not want it. I felt like I had to get the word out, like Paul Revere.” She drew up a petition and started going door to door in her neighborhood. Quickly, she said, “the community mobilized on a grassroots level.” Environmental organizations, including Communities for a Better Environment, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sunflower Alliance, she said, provided key support.

Willie Sims, who represented the local NAACP and the Pittsburg Black Residents Association in the movement against the project, recalled that in January 2014, “there was a big protest march with people coming from all over the East Bay.”

Speakers included local pastor Greg Osorio and other community leaders, representatives of environmental organizations, and local youth sharing songs and poetry. They pointed to the dangers of fire and explosions from the shipping and storage of crude oil in the middle of a residential area. Increased air pollution from the project, they said, would add to an already high level of harmful pollution from the city’s existing industrial facilities. Possible spills and leaks from an increase
in oil shipping also threatened Contra Costa County’s water supply and bay water quality.

In the same month, California Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote a letter to the City of Pittsburg detailing many problems she saw in the environmental review of the project, including risks to the community and environment, as well as social justice and legal issues. Kalli Graham, who cofounded the Pittsburg Defense Council to fight the WesPac proposal, said community activists prompted Harris’s action. “We had sent some letters to her. She never responded to us directly, but she did send the letter to the city.”

In February 2014, the city council ordered WesPac to go back to the drawing board for a new environmental review. From that time until April 2015, the project seemed dormant. Then WesPac announced it would continue to pursue the storage and shipping project but without the highly controversial plan to bring in some of the oil by rail. Another environmental review of the project, in July 2015, prompted another outpouring of community opposition, as well as letters of concern from the Contra Costa Water District and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“We just kept at it and kept at it and kept at it,” Graham said. “We screamed and hollered at anybody that would listen.” A Pittsburg Defense Council victory message earlier this week described a vigorous campaign of community meetings, door-knocking, and grassroots collection of air samples showing that pollution was already at danger levels. “We lobbied our city and county officials . . . [and] spoke at countless planning commission and city council meetings,” the message said.

Both Graham and Monterrey expressed disappointment at the city council’s role in the process. “They said they had to remain neutral,” Monterrey said. But, Graham pointed out, “they’re supposed to represent us.” Sims of the NAACP said political pressure on the council definitely had an effect. “If the city council had approved WesPac, they would have faced a potential recall,” he commented.

“The tireless legwork of the community,” built up pressure against the proposal, Monterrey said. “We got the youth involved – that was important – and they had a youth rally at city hall. There were lawn signs throughout the community. We got the school board and the hospital board to write letters. We flew in a survivor from Quebec [where 47 people died in an explosion of a train carrying crude oil]. She spoke at the First Baptist Church and the high school. It was very emotional, made the issue very personal.”

The Pittsburg Defense Council announcement encouraged people to celebrate at next Monday’s city council meeting, where the end of the project will become official. The group is offering “victory yard signs” to attendees.