Bay Area City Embroiled in Battle over Coal Export Ban

Proposed ordinance to ban coal and petcoke handling has put the City of Richmond on the frontlines of the fight for environmental justice and climate action.

Update: On January 14, the Richmond, CA City Council passed an ordinance to phase out the handling and storage of coal and petcoke in the city.

The Richmond, CA City Council has a big decision to make next week. At its January 14 meeting, the all-male, seven-member council is expected to vote on a proposed ordinance that would phase out the handling and storage of coal in the city over a three-year period. The upcoming vote — the culmination of a multi-year campaign by local residents concerned about yet another dangerous pollutant in their community — has put the industrial Bay Area city on the frontlines of the fight for environmental justice and climate action.

Photo by
The Levin-Richmond terminal (pictured) has been exporting coal since 2013. Richmond is also home to one of California’s largest oil refineries, chemical plants, metal processing facilities, and more. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.

The ordinance would most immediately impact the operations of the Levin-Richmond terminal, a privately owned business operating out of the Port of Richmond. The Levin-Richmond terminal has been exporting petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining, for decades, and began handling coal in 2013. Between 2013 and 2018, it increased its coal exports by more than 400 percent to roughly one million metric tons annually.

After catching wind of the increasing coal exports in 2017, local residents and allied groups formed the No Coal in Richmond (NCIR) coalition to draw attention to the health and climate impacts of the operation. In particular, they point to the dangers of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, from coal and petcoke dust, exposure to which is linked to serious respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Coal and petcoke also contain heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and sulfur.

“There really is no safe level of PM 2.5,” Minda Berbeco, director of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, told me in an interview on KPFA’s Terra Verde last week.

The pollution associated with coal transportation and storage is difficult to mitigate. Due to combustion risks, coal must remain uncovered both during transportation and once unloaded at Levin-Richmond terminal. The terminal has taken certain measures to reduce the amount of coal dust drifting into nearby neighborhoods and the San Francisco Bay, including the use of a wind barrier, a sprinkler system to wet the coal, and coverage of the terminals’ conveyor system. At least some of these measures stem from a 2012 lawsuit and resulting agreement with the San Francisco Baykeeper, which advocates for the health of the Bay.

But locals like Janis Hashe, a Richmond resident and member of the No Coal in Richmond group, say these measures simply aren’t enough, and that people living in the vicinity of the terminal regularly find coal dust accumulating around their homes. A 2018 soil analysis initiated by Richmond Mayor Thomas Butt confirmed the presence of coal dust in residential areas.

NCIR stresses that in Richmond, any pollution resulting from the Levin operation is additive. The city’s residents — more than half of whom are people of color and a quarter of whom live under the poverty line — already live in a particularly industrial part of the San Francisco Bay Area that includes one of the state’s largest oil refineries. The city has some of the highest asthma rates in California.

No Coal in Richmond on KPFA’s Terra Verde (Audio):

Exporting coal, the burning of which releases more carbon dioxide than oil or natural gas, also contributes to the climate crisis. The coal passing through Richmond has its origins in Utah, where industries have continued to mine the fossil fuel despite dwindling domestic demand. From there, it is loaded onto trains for transport to Richmond and shipment to Japan. Richmond is one of the only West Coast ports exporting coal. A nearby terminal in Stockton, CA also handles the fossil fuel — ships loaded there are often topped off in Richmond. (A new facility in Oakland has its sights set on coal as well, but the plans are currently the subject of litigation.)

“The coal industry needs to recognize that the damage it is doing globally to the environment in the middle of the climate crisis needs to be addressed now,” Hashe says. “We can’t wait another 20 years.”

But the Levin-Richmond terminal, joined by building trades unions, has been fighting tooth-and-nail against the ordinance. Terminal owner Gary Levin made his case at a well-attended July planning commission meeting, saying that there’s simply no other economically viable commodities for the terminal and that the ordinance would leave the company’s 62 employees, including 47 union members, without work. During a December city council meeting, where the council heard some four hours of testimony for and against the terminal, union members turned up to show their support for the terminal, many with signs reading “Are our jobs too dirty for you?” The council postponed voting on the matter until January 14.

NCIR has rejected the idea that the ordinance represents a “jobs versus environment” tradeoff, pointing to alternative commodities that could be shipped from the terminal, like gypsum, sand, or scrap metal, among other options. The ordinance provides for a three-year transition away from coal and petcoke, and allows the terminal to seek additional time for the phase out if necessary.

“I’m far from being anti-union and that is absolutely the truth for everyone who is involved with No Coal in Richmond,” Hashe says. “We support people having jobs, there’s no question about that. But you’re talking about 47 jobs at the terminal, operating engineers who can be doing something else as operating engineers, versus the health of hundreds of thousands of people.”

Levin-Richmond isn’t the only company with a stake in the outcome. Wolverine Fuels, the Utah company mining the coal that is shipped out of Richmond, has also come out strongly against the ordinance, threating to sue the City of Richmond should the ban pass.

Berbeco acknowledges that either side could litigate after next week’s vote. But, she says, “the city of Richmond is well within its legal rights to protect the health and safety of its citizens by phasing out coal and petcoke handling and storage.”

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