The A’s believe their Howard Terminal ballpark project is eco-conscious. Environmental groups are skeptical
By Steve Berman and Alex Coffey, April 5, 2021
Last August, shortly after the A’s filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court against the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), A’s president Dave Kaval sent out a series of tweets. The lawsuit alleged that DTSC had failed to implement the state’s Hazardous Waste Law against Schnitzer Steel, a steel manufacturing and scrap metal recycling company with a facility in West Oakland. Kaval’s tweets expressed concern about the impact of Schnitzer’s actions on the soil and water within the community, which he said could lead to fires. He deemed it unacceptable.
“We want to be part of the solution,” Kaval tweeted. “Environmental stewardship is core to our commitment to Oakland. We are doing this with our groundbreaking environmental justice legislation to improve air quality, reduce car trips by 20% & address sea level rise.”
He added: “We want our ballpark project to be a catalyst for environmental justice in West Oakland. We’ll fight this fight regardless of what happens with the ballpark. This is bigger than baseball.”
About seven months later, the Alameda County Superior Court ruled in the A’s favor.
“Boom, we won the lawsuit!” Kaval tweeted on March 24, adding that it was a “huge win for a safer and healthier West Oakland.”
Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of Baykeeper, an environmental group that works to stop pollution to San Francisco Bay and its tributaries, was watching all of this with a more skeptical eye. She was in the process of reviewing the City of Oakland’s draft Environmental Impact Report for the A’s Howard Terminal ballpark project, which was released in late February. As she flipped its pages — of which there are thousands, including appendices — she couldn’t help but think this effort toward regulating Schnitzer felt misplaced, and perhaps a little insincere.
“It would be better if the A’s would put the same energy into cleaning up Howard Terminal that they put into forcing Schnitzer Steel to clean up its act next door,” she said. “I’m sure it might be seen as good for the bottom line, but it feels uncomfortably hypocritical that the A’s would wage a legal battle against pollution at Schnitzer while shirking responsibility for cleaning up the contamination on their own property.”
She wasn’t alone. What Kaval failed to mention in his initial, post-lawsuit tweets, was that Schnitzer was one of the Port of Oakland stakeholders who had filed a lawsuit against the A’s in March, in an attempt to halt streamlining of the EIR for the project.
When the draft EIR was published on Feb. 26, the clock started on a 45-day public comment period to submit feedback on the document before it went to a city council vote, throwing environmental groups and engaged Oakland residents into a race against time. The public comment period was recently pushed to April 27, but some believe that extension isn’t sufficient for a document of this size and magnitude.
“We’ve got a very complicated project being proposed in approximately 1,000 pages,” Choksi-Chugh said. “It takes time for the community to digest all of that, and it’s not appropriate to have a short comment period for that kind of review. It feels like they’re trying to rush things in order to get some things through that they know may be problematic.”
Kaval has said that this project being streamlined or fast-tracked — whichever term you want to use — is essential to its completion. Whether or not they’d prefer to use a speedier review process to push important environmental decisions down the road is up for debate, but let’s take a look at a key sticking point — toxic cleanup — with input from Kaval and three environmental groups and advocacy organizations: Baykeeper, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (a group the A’s partnered with in 2019) and Public Advocates.
Choksi-Chugh says that her interactions with Kaval have been very positive. Brian Beveridge, co-director of WOEIP, has said the same thing. Both laid out their concerns to the A’s, and both felt genuinely listened to, but as Choksi-Chugh puts it, “the devil is in the details,” and all three groups felt that certain components of the City’s draft EIR were lacking in that regard.
“Many of the sections rely on future studies, and this is concerning for several reasons,” said Ruby Acevedo, a staff attorney for Public Advocates. “Without a study that actually has already occurred, without the ability to actually see what the results are, we can’t possibly know what the impact is going to be.”
Acevedo was referring to the greenhouse gas emissions portion of the draft EIR. Public Advocates doesn’t believe that the study the draft EIR provides fully recognizes the indirect environmental effects of a new workforce coming in to build and work in the ballpark.
A rendering of the A’s Howard Terminal stadium (Courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group)
Nevertheless, Kaval, in an interview with The Athletic on Friday, said that the A’s are committed to a carbon-neutral project, which would require the utilization of modern equipment.
“As part of our AB 734 legislation that we got passed, we are holding ourselves to the highest level of environmental sustainability and standards,” he said. “And that includes the construction and ensuring that the machinery, any greenhouse gas generated from the construction is offset. And that is a key aspect to how we will build the project and ensure that it’s done in a safe and effective way for the residents in West Oakland.”
But concerns about still-unknown environmental effects were raised in other portions of the report, too, particularly those that address the cleanup of a Howard Terminal site sitting on decades’ — maybe centuries’ — worth of contaminated soil.
“It’s been a shipping terminal for almost 200 years or 150 years, and it’s been industrialized for all that time,” said Beveridge. “None of those industries cared about the environment. And so now, all traces of those people and their efforts are gone. But what they left is tenacious.”
This is nothing new in the Bay Area. When the Giants were starting the construction of what is now known as Oracle Park, a bureaucratic snafu led to 6,000 cubic yards of soil getting dumped at the Altamont Landfill that had lead toxicity levels above state standards in 1999.
Kaval described a different situation at Howard Terminal, and said the A’s planned to use a multi-pronged approach to deal with the soil at the site — a mix of removing toxic soil and laying new soil on top of what’s already there.
“It’s a combination of both, depending on the different conditions of the soil,” Kaval said. “So you may have to move some soil out if it’s not up to standards. Remember, a lot of the site was developed in the ’90s. Howard Terminal was renovated in 1994. So it’s not quite as old as some of the other sites that you might find.”
Section 4.8 of the draft EIR, “Hazards and Hazardous Materials,” includes a section on soil management, which includes guidelines on how potentially contaminated soil will be classified and disposed of.
“I think the key part about that is there’s nothing in there that’s a showstopper that would prevent us from getting the soil in a place where it would be safe to be there for fans, for people living there,” he said. “It’s a pretty standard former maritime site. And so, that was actually very reassuring to get all that analysis and see that there was a clear way to do remediation, to capture portions of the site, to ensure that it was done in a safe way.”
Choksi-Chugh isn’t as convinced. She said that her topline request for this specific project has always been for the A’s to clean up the site and prevent contaminants from leaking into the bay if flooding occurs, and, like Acevedo, she is concerned that the portions of the draft EIR that address this lean on future studies rather than current, concrete information.
“We were really hoping the A’s would come in, clean it up, have a great community benefits agreement with the West Oakland community, and actually be a good neighbor,” she said. “They were making a lot of noises in that direction, meeting with community groups and having lots of stakeholder meetings, but they haven’t seemed to follow through, at least not in the parts of the draft EIR that we’ve reviewed so far.
“Our main concern is about the toxic contamination that’s already on the site. Even though the section is very long, the A’s are not providing a ton of detail about what they’re going to be doing right now to clean up that toxicity. It looks like they’re just planning on covering all the toxic fill-up, and the purpose on their end seems to be in order to address the sea level rise considerations for the stadium itself. That is not the concern that we have. Sea level rise is still going to reach the toxic contamination on the site in the fill that’s going to be under the stadium. That’s where our concern is, and they need to actually be providing details on how they’re going to clean up that toxicity before they move forward with developing the site.
“Instead, what they seem to be doing is putting off the planning of that cleanup and the details of that cleanup until an unspecified future date. It seems like they’re trying to get this project approved quickly, and then go in and start construction based on kind of vague promises that are contained in the draft EIR, and DTSC and Oakland are just supposed to think about the details later. Which isn’t the right order of operations for the site. DTSC and Oakland should insist on cleaning up the site now, with concrete steps and an established timeline, so that we can make sure that the contamination is addressed now before construction on the site starts.”
The excerpts of the draft EIR that gave Baykeeper pause refer to a remedial action work plan (RAW) that proposes procedures to clean up contamination over a specific period of time. In Chapter 4.8, a section called “Future Governing Documents” says that DTSC’s goal is to approve a new RAW for the project, adding that DTSC plans to “rely on this Project EIR for CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) compliance for its decision to approve the new RAW, which means RAW could not be approved until after this Project EIR is certified by the City.”
A few pages later, the report notes that “remedial action objectives have not been established,” and that they will occur after RAW is approved.
Without getting too into the weeds, Baykeeper’s point here is that the purpose of a draft EIR is to assess the impact of a project, in this case, the Howard Terminal project. The fact that a work plan for toxic site cleanup would have to be approved after the report outlining potential environmental impact is approved seems to defeat the purpose of the EIR in the first place. Which, on a site as toxic as this, could have detrimental impacts for generations to come.
“It’s not just lead,” Beveridge said. “It’s just a really toxic site. It’s been really toxic, and it’s one of the things that kept it from being developed before now. Diesel and old fuel oil … it is a really toxic mess. No one wants to take the asphalt off that parking lot and start digging around in it. The A’s are going to have to do some of that because they’re going to have to drive piles really deep into the ground, and I’m not sure how they’re going to handle the removal of a lot of super-toxic stuff. I suppose they could spend $100 million, without thinking too much about it, if they tried to clean up Howard Terminal before they built it. But it is convenient in one way — by adding soil to it, they’re also achieving their sea level rise goals.
“Sea level rise is a real concern, and what’s frustrating, is that it’s recognized by all the people who are in charge of this development. They’re all taking preparations to harden themselves against sea level rise, and they’re sitting back here four feet above sea level in what now becomes a little bowl and everything around us on the shoreline has been lifted up. But it doesn’t act like a dike to protect us, because there are lots of little natural spaces that haven’t been lifted up. So, in a flooding event, the water will pour into this neighborhood, but none of those big expensive things will be harmed. It’s just all of our homes that will be harmed. All of us, all our cars will be flooded, everything. The starting point should be, how do we protect all the people from sea level rise, instead of, ‘How do we protect ourselves and our stuff?’”
Dave Kaval speaks at a 2018 press conference announcing plans to build the A’s new park at the Howard Terminal site. (AP Photo / Ben Margot)
When asked about concerns regarding what might happen to the surrounding neighborhood when sea level becomes a problem along the Bay Area’s shorelines, Kaval said that the city of Oakland bears some responsibility.
“It’s really focused on the Howard Terminal site, the 55 acres,” Kaval said, describing the draft EIR. “And ensuring that that is hardened for basically another 100 years of sea level rise. The remaining portions of Jack London Square, we’re hopeful that some of the tax revenue that’s generated from our project could go to the city and they could invest in those areas as well.
“But we’re focused on our site, making the investments necessary to raise it up and ensure that it will be resilient for sea level rise. That’s all part of the baseline plan. Because we’re raising the site almost four feet, which is a considerable increase. And we’ll be bringing in additional soil and building up the site to do that, and so that’s going to be an important community benefit to ensure that this is a location that can withstand our changing environment.”
The A’s believe environmental groups should be confident in the oversight they know they’ll face throughout this project if they get a green light from the city. But it should be noted that the group in place to regulate, DTSC, is the same group that the A’s just sued for inadequate regulation of Schnitzer Steel, which begs the question: If the A’s can’t trust DTSC to regulate Schnitzer, why should they ask environmental groups to trust DTSC to regulate the A’s?
“This is all regulated by the Department of Toxic Substances Control,” Kaval said. “We have an arrangement with them, an entire plan to ensure that the stormwater is handled correctly, that even in the construction if you have piles of dirt and things like that, it’s moved effectively. So this is something that’s highly regulated. There’s a clear system to do it, it’s part of the construction of the building. And I think the key headline is that in looking at the analysis, this is not something that should stand in the way of the ballpark being built or cause any issues with safety or security or health for people who are on the site. Which is really reassuring. That was unknown a couple of years ago, before all this analysis.”
Perhaps it is reassuring for the A’s, but Beveridge, who says one of his main goals is to ensure citizens are involved in what he thinks could be the “most significant development project in Oakland” since the development of the Coliseum site, believes the consequences of the contamination alone go far beyond the West Oakland environment itself.
“People in West Oakland kind of live with this … it’s deep in your subconscious really,” Beveridge said. “It’s deep in people’s awareness, and they kind of let it go, because they can’t live with this every day. They know that the soil under their feet is toxic, they know the air they breathe is toxic. So, when people don’t see any real effort to make it less toxic, while there’s a tremendous effort to make a bunch of money, that gets under their skin. It’s like sweeping the dirt under the rug. I know the dirt under the rug. People who come to visit me may not know, they may think I’m a great housekeeper, but I know. It’s like the psychology of this is being ignored. And the psychology affects people’s lives. I think this is a deep thing that we forget about. They think we can gloss everything over with something gleaming and new, and we’ll forget, that we’ll just enjoy the gleaming new thing and forget what’s been buried.”
(Photo of Howard Terminal and the Oakland Estuary: Jane Tyska / MediaNews Group / The Mercury News via Getty Images)