PITTSBURG -- Heavy industry has long been woven into this city's blue-collar fabric, ranging from chemical to steel to power plants. But so, too, are homes and upscale businesses along Pittsburg's waterfront, which the city has worked to transform into a thriving bedroom community complete with a downtown cigar lounge and specialty food store that sells caviar.
Those two worlds collided with a developer's proposal to ship domestic and imported crude oil to a vacant industrial parcel where 16 large storage tanks -- now empty -- once stored fuel oil used to run a former PG&E power plant more than 25 years ago.
The proposal has generated fierce community opposition, and in January city officials reopened a public review period for sections of a draft environmental impact report in response to safety, air quality and other environmental concerns. The controversy is a reminder of the tension that has long existed along the waterfront in Contra Costa County, which is home to power plants, refineries, manufacturing and other industrial sites that coexist uneasily with suburban housing developments and quaint downtowns.
"There are concerns at multiple levels. You're bringing in something that is really flammable -- material with the potential for explosion -- and you are bringing it into a densely populated area," said Susan Burkitt, who lives near the proposed project and is a founder of the Pittsburg Defense Council, which along with several environmental groups is fighting the plan.
To date, more than 4,000 residents in this city of 66,000 have signed a petition against the project, which would receive 88 million barrels annually of domestic crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Colorado, west Texas and New Mexico shipped by rail, as well as imported crude brought in by marine vessels, to a 125-acre parcel next to what is now the NRG power plant.
As part of the joint venture of WesPac Energy and Oiltanking Holding Americas, the oil would be shipped by pipeline from the terminal to local refineries. Pittsburg High School students have held an on-campus protest against the project and spoken out against it at City Council meetings.
Pittsburg, which takes its name from the legendary Pennsylvania steel town, has deep industrial roots. In 2010, steel manufacturer USS-Posco Industries marked 100 years of operations here, and Dow Chemical has been in Pittsburg since 1939.
Previous disputes have erupted over a decision by county supervisors in 1990 to locate the Keller Canyon landfill in Pittsburg and Dow's plan to build a hazardous waste incinerator in 1992 (Dow later dropped the proposal). In 2009, refiner Tesoro stopped storing petroleum coke dust at its inactive terminal on East Third Street after neighbors complained about soot being spread into downtown.
The latest flap is not surprising, said former City Councilman Bob Lewis, who served from 1989 to 2002. "That's a situation to be expected in Pittsburg, where residential uses are adjacent to industrial uses. It's nothing new."
But Joe Canciamilla, a former state assemblyman who served on the council from 1987 to 1996, said the city bears some responsibility for the conflict that has arisen over the WesPac project.
"The area is transitioning and becoming more residential than industrial. The city to some degree is responsible for engineering this kind of conflict by approving new residences close to a lot of these industrial sites," said Canciamilla, referring to redevelopment efforts that have revitalized the city's downtown. "The city spent millions of dollars subsidizing properties and development in the area, and then to turn around (and consider) putting in a massive new industrial development is certainly going to create some level of conflict."
Critics point out that unlike the buffer zone around Dow's Pittsburg operations, where the closest homes are about a mile away, there is no such buffer called for in the WesPac proposal. Growing national concerns about the safety of moving crude by rail has also spurred the opposition.
Drewcilla Wyatt's home is about a quarter-mile from where WesPac wants to build a rail component that would unload 100 railcars of crude a day five days a week at an existing train yard along North Parkside Drive.
"Pittsburg has moved up since I came in. We have a functioning downtown," she said. "We have enough trains. Trains run here all night and day. What if a train spills, what if it catches fire? This is so close to homes."
Proponents of the $200 million project say it would help refineries take advantage of a domestic oil boom at a time when California production is falling. WesPac officials say the project would be safe, address environmental concerns raised by opponents, create jobs and provide $800,000 in yearly property tax and tidelands lease revenue to the city.
"I think WesPac is a very good fit for the city of Pittsburg. It is proposed to be developed in an area zoned for heavy industry, so that's the only thing that can go in there," said Brad Nail, who retired as the city's economic director in 2011.
Nail said he understands that redevelopment in the area helped set the stage for conflict over the project. "But Pittsburg historically is an industrial town. ... If you buy a home in the marina downtown area, you are very aware there is industry there."
More than 1,200 housing units have been built since 1980 in the downtown and waterfront area, according to city records.
The desire to maximize the economic potential of Contra Costa's waterfront has been a goal of Supervisor Federal Glover, who launched the Northern Waterfront Economic Development initiative last year.
Glover, a former Pittsburg councilman, has not taken a formal position on the WesPac project, and a consultant's report prepared for his initiative concludes that the waterfront could become more competitive by bringing in new industries such as clean technology and green energy. But such changes are not going to happen right away, according to Glover.
"We are not going to run in tomorrow and be able to have all the nice green industries and the high-tech stuff," he said. "It's a blend, and how you are able to balance out what you have in the area."
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her at Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.