Port of Oakland Wants to Make More Room for Mega Ships. Will That Increase Pollution?

A plan to dredge two turning basins in the bay near the Port of Oakland to better accommodate mega-sized container ships is gathering steam despite opposition from local environmental justice groups.

The huge container ships that frequent Oakland’s port, the ninth busiest in the U.S., often struggle to switch directions at the existing harbor basins, according to port officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the federal navigation channel that services the port.

The issue has led to numerous cargo-ship traffic jams in recent years, furthering backlogs amid ongoing supply chain woes, with vessels sometimes forced to anchor idly in the bay for days.

The Army Corps’ proposal calls for widening each of the two basins by about 20 acres to allow some of the port’s largest ships to turn more easily. The agency has already completed a draft environmental impact report that is currently under review and is now seeking feedback from community members.

But some environmental justice advocates said the project would detrimentally impact the area’s already compromised air and water quality and are disappointed by what they say have been a dearth of opportunities for community members to weigh in on the project.

“They have done a poor job on community engagement,” said Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, noting that there has been only one virtual call between her group and the agencies working on the project. “All they want to talk about is the plans for construction and not the emissions from ongoing operations.”

Container ships have grown significantly larger in recent years, expanding with an increasingly global marketplace. Currently, the port, through which about 99% of Northern California’s container cargo passes, can accommodate ships that carry as many as 18,000 standard 20-foot container boxes.

The dredging proposal would allow for shipping vessels as long as 1,310 feet — greater than the height of San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower — that can carry more than 19,000 containers through Oakland’s Inner and Outer Harbors.

Supporters of the plan said that widening the turning basins will improve transit efficiency, help modernize the waterway, and potentially even reduce emissions by allowing ships to plug into electricity from land rather than burning dirty diesel fuel while idle.

“Each turning basin provides its own utilities. These properties lease out, and the leasees compete for the business,” Justin Taschek, a Port of Oakland project manager, said at last week’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission hearing. “All vessels go to both the outer and inner harbor. It’s integral to remain competitive throughout the complex to allow all vessels to visit all properties.”

However, the massive undertaking would require the removal of tons of sediment and old bay mud surrounding the existing basins. While that material could be reused in the project, activists argue the process would disrupt wildlife in the area and degrade the bay’s water quality.

Opponents are also raising concerns about the project’s impact on longer-term operations at the port. More ship traffic would likely increase emissions in the area and pose further threats to public safety and health, said Katrina Tomas, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit advocating against the project.

“Our concern is that this project will only worsen the already existing air-quality crisis in West Oakland and the communities adjacent to the port of Oakland,” she told KQED.

She and other opponents are calling for a redo of the Corps’ environmental review, arguing that the current version focuses only on construction and dredging and neglects to consider potential harms associated with ongoing operations after the project is complete.

“The Corps was not looking at the operational impacts. They were almost exclusively looking at the impacts of dredging the bay,” said Tomas, adding that the analysis was limited in terms of its geographic scope. “This ignores other impacts to West Oakland specifically, a frontline community to the Port of Oakland that has borne the brunt of the industry moving in and out of the port.”

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