I wasn’t going to return to the Oakland A’s stadium squabbles quite so soon, but then, I didn’t expect A’s execs to respond to their current stalemate by suing the state of California to crack down on a steel recycling plant whose owners sued them over their stadium.
Let’s back up a bit, for those who haven’t been following. The A’s want to build a new stadium at Howard Terminal, a port facility near downtown Oakland, with stadium construction itself paid for by the team but possibly as much as $200 million in city funds going to “infrastructure” improvements like new bridges across a busy adjacent street. The port companies and unions don’t especially want to have to deal with a baseball stadium on their doorstep, so they’ve been fighting against the project; back in March, port interests, including Schnitzer — pictured here on fire next to the proposed stadium site — sued the state to block the A’s owners from being allowed to fast-track the environmental approval process for their stadium plans.
Now, the A’s owners have filed their own suit against the state over Schnitzer’s own exemption from state environmental laws, namely hazardous waste disposal regulations that a 2014 state law said would be enforced against the recycling plant if it didn’t shape up (such as by not catching on fire quite so often) by 2018. But just in case you see this as tit-for-tat lawyering up, A’s stadium czar Dave Kaval assures you that they are just in it on behalf of the people:
1/16 Big news from the @athletics today. Even bigger news for West Oakland residents and
organizations who’ve spent decades fighting for cleaner air and water.
— Dave Kaval (@DaveKaval) August 5, 2020
15/16 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.
— Dave Kaval (@DaveKaval) August 5, 2020
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with: Pollution is indeed bad! A metal recycling plant that catches on fire every couple of years — and, according to one local environmentalist, regularly sends “little tumbleweeds” of polyester fiber blowing through surrounding neighborhoods — is problematic for humans and other living things, even if, as newballpark.org points out, these are apparently common problems with metal recycling plants all over the nation.
As for “bigger than baseball,” though, it’s hard to imagine that the A’s owners would be pursuing this suit if the polluter in question weren’t standing between themselves and their stadium dreams. Throwing around terms like “environmental justice” and asserting that a baseball stadium will “clean the air and water” (presumably, if I’m reading Kaval’s Twitter thread right, because fans will be able to get there by public transit) seems transparently like greenwashing — especially when you add in the Schnitzer Watch website set up to promote the team’s lawsuit, with no information about who’s behind the site (the site owners paid to hide its registry info) but lots of big, beautiful pictures of those fires.
Leaving aside for the moment whether you’d rather root for a real estate baron looking for the city of Oakland to help clear the way for him to build a waterfront stadium during an era of sea level rise and then claiming this is a way to save the Earth, or for a toxic-waste-spewing plant that is trying to chase the A’s offa their lawn on the grounds that they filed their paperwork too late, this whole mess is a perfect example of what might be called the Snail Darter Principle of Inverse Proportionality.
The snail darter, as you may or may not recall, is a tiny fish that was discovered to be living in the Little Tennessee River in the 1970s, right when the Tennessee Valley Authority was set to start building a dam there. The resulting lawsuits over the Endangered Species Act held up the dam for years, though eventually the fish were relocated to another nearby river and the dam was completed. It was just one of many projects where a bigger controversy over a development project came to hinge on a single environmental-law technicality that emerged almost by chance — in New York City, the $2 billion Westway project to build a massive underground highway along the Hudson River waterfront fell apart in the 1980s largely because it would have required tearing down piers where endangered striped bass lived. (I thought about calling this the Striped Bass Principle, but “snail darter” is an undeniably funnier name.)
All of which is to say, if the A’s Howard Terminal project succeeds or fails not because of whether it’s a good place for a ballpark or whether it’s a good use of public infrastructure dollars to build bridges to get fans to a new stadium when there’s already an old stadium site right next to a public transit station, but based on whose lawyers and PR firms can make them look more on the side of green jobs, that would be extremely par for the course. Whether you find that hilarious or tragic — or both, there’s always both — is entirely up to you, because what is America if not a place where everyone is free to choose whether to laugh or cry over what’s become of democracy?