Bait and Switch in South Vallejo
The outline of a coming public relations campaign is taking shape that will attempt to revive the marine terminal and cement plant project rejected by our planning commission following public input and the recommendation from City staff and consultants. It's a deceptive strategy that relies on the old, time-tested bait and switch maneuver. The hucksters show you a bright and shiny object, but somehow at the end of the transaction you find yourself holding a lump of coal. We’re going to hear creative accounts of green industry clusters adding new jobs by the hundreds, and the veritable fountain of economic stimulus sure to flow from a port operation that would give local businesses access to international markets. Don’t be fooled by these tall tales.
The applicants will regale us with fantastic stories about cement plant operators who can miraculously unload massive quantities of blast furnace slag from cargo ships to store in open piles, mill to a fine powder, and transport 24/7 - all without getting any toxic material into the soil, water, or lungs of the school kids just upwind. Those big ship diesel generators running day and night, and the freight trains and hundreds of daily heavy diesel truck trips through residential neighborhoods will have no significant impact if they can just prepare a final environmental report. The ability to move break bulk cargo will fuel an explosion of local economic activity, because everybody knows how the desperate need for a port and access to overseas markets has been holding back our local businesses. It’s a heaping, steaming pile of nonsense - bearing little resemblance to what would actually unfold on our waterfront over the next half century if four councilmembers prove gullible enough to buy it.
The proposition that an Orcem slag cement mill would somehow anchor a green industry cluster in Vallejo is ridiculous. For starters, what part of ‘cluster’ are we not understanding? The south Vallejo site is isolated from the other industry on Mare Island with existing rail service, which is why their freight trains would need to routinely interrupt traffic all the way across town on the currently abandoned rail spur to south Vallejo.
The Environmental Impact Report examines three possible modes of operation for Orcem, one of which is just as a regular portland cement plant - no hint of green anywhere in sight. Market conditions will dictate which of these modes of operation would actually materialize on our precious waterfront. The blast furnace slag for recycling in ‘green’ cement has become a scarce and increasingly expensive global commodity and transportation costs will continue to rise. After the incessant green hype, we’d most likely end up with a lump of coal in the form of an ordinary portland cement plant occupying our precious waterfront.
The claim that a Vallejo Marine Terminal operating on the site would surely stimulate the local economy by handling break bulk cargo - long touted as the primary purpose of the project - doesn’t hold up any better under scrutiny. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission retains jurisdiction over the shoreline area and would ultimately need to approve the project. The BCDC staff outlined the real world port and cargo situation in their comments on the draft environmental report as follows: “In the Commission's 2014 Bay Area Maritime Cargo Monitoring Report, issued October 23, 2015, the Commission found that no break bulk cargo was handled in 2014, and that no break bulk has been handled by areas within BCDC Port Priority Use Areas since 2006.”
Really? None at all? So much for any significant economic stimulus from adding capacity for break bulk cargo. They go on to cite the current excess Bay Area port capacity for neo-bulk, dry bulk, and liquid bulk cargo as well.
In fact, the BCDC staff told the applicants that the site is not designated for cargo handling at all, only for processing industries that use shipping to move raw materials and finished products - like a portland cement plant for instance. When informed that some cargo handling could possibly be allowed as a temporary use, the applicants confirmed that the shiny port project they keep dangling in front of us is really only the bait in one more bait and switch.
After a discussion with the applicants, the BCDC staff issued some revised comments on April 29, 2016. They document some revealing highlights from that conversation: “At the meeting on April 11, 2016, VMT expressed an interest in attracting more water-related industry to the site, but acknowledged that additional water-related industry use would take time to attract and develop. In the interim period, VMT proposed to use the wharf to move some cargo, primarily raw materials, to and from the site.”
The environmental analysis doesn’t say anything about the impacts from these future water-related industrial tenants, or even what kind of industry would replace this temporary cargo use. In light of this unambiguous admission by the applicants, a final environmental report on the project as it is currently and inaccurately described is worthless as a tool to evaluate what the project operation impacts would actually look like over the term of the sixty plus year lease. Our staff and consultants were correct to recommend that the City stop wasting resources and abandon work on a final environmental impact report for this ill-conceived project.
A bare majority of our City Council bought into a bogus fairness argument, and voted instead to prolong the process. There’s nothing fair about running a bait and switch con job on credulous local officials and members of the public. Let’s hope our councilmembers aren’t foolish enough to also buy the shiny object and leave us holding a lump of coal on our waterfront for the next half century.
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