Photo Credit: Lance Yamamoto, with permission from Sunflower Alliance

A Dec. 3 meeting of the Richmond City Council ended suddenly, and without explanation, before its slated vote on the eventual ban of coal and petroleum coke storage in the city. And it’s unclear whether the ban will ever get a vote. One hundred people had testified for four hours regarding the ban.

Richmond’s Democratic Mayor Tom Butt motioned to table the item until the City Council’s Jan. 14 meeting. Countering Butt’s move, City Council member Jael Myrick failed to get the five votes needed to override the motion tabling the bill.

Butt’s only explanation during the council meeting for tabling the vote was that he was doing so “under the Mayor’s prerogative.” Myrick said that he attempted to overturn Butt’s decision because “We’ve been delaying since 2015.” 

After the four hours of testimony, the City Council abruptly voted to halt the meeting.

Butt told The Real News that he pulled the item from consideration because it was getting late, with the clock striking midnight by the time the public comments were finished. He said he hopes to broker a deal between stakeholders “without legislation and without litigation” with a “goal of moving coal out of Richmond.” In other words, a vote may never occur at all.

“You know, it’s just not–it’s just good to continue debating and taking the vote on something that late,” said Butt. “Another reason is that we all received a flurry of letters and reports, you know, all kinds of documents in the last 12 to 24 hours before that meeting and nobody really had a chance to go through them and read them. A third reason is that it gives us some time to sit down with Levin and see if we can find some resolution other than legislation to cure this issue.”

Butt said that some of those letters and reports came from Phillips 66 and actors within the coal industry. Phillips 66 owns a nearby tar sands oil refinery in the city of Rodeo, which produces the petroleum coke (“petcoke”) stored at the Levin-Richmond terminal. Petcoke is a coal-like by-product of the tar sands oil refining process, described by U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI) as “dirtier than the dirtiest fuel.” Extracting bitumen from tar sands is the most carbon-intensive oil extraction process in the world.

Climate Justice, Jobs

For years, climate justice advocates have pushed the San Francisco Bay Area city to close the storage terminal owned by Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, saying it has caused community health impacts and makes the city culpable for causing climate change. 

A coalition of climate justice groups calling itself No Coal In Richmond has advocated for the city to shut down the facility. Dozens of its members spoke at the Dec. 3 meeting. They argued that the community health impacts and global climate impacts outweigh the jobs created from the facility, while workers for the company expressed concerns about losing their jobs and livelihoods.

Coal emits more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel when burned. Coal mining also emits methane, a greenhouse gas 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Routinized inhalation of coal and petcoke dust of the sort stored at the Levin-Richmond Terminal can also lead to respiratory problems and exacerbate symptoms of illnesses such as asthma. This is because both commodities are sources of PM 2.5. Shorthand for particulate matter 2.5 millimeters in size or smaller, PM 2.5 particles lodged in human air passageways can also lead to eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, as well as coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.

At worst, long-term exposure to airborne coal or petcoke dust can lead to cancer, according to a report published by UC-Berkeley public health scholar Julia Walsh to coincide with the Dec. 3 meeting.

“Coal dust and petroleum coke dust contains heavy metal toxics such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, vanadium, nickel and crystalline silica,” reads the study. “These substances if inhaled or ingested are known to cause cancer, fetal defects and neurological damage, even at very low doses. There are no known safe levels of exposure to these toxics.”

In a letter submitted to the City Council, Phillips 66 wrote that it denies any health impacts exist due to its petcoke product.

“[W]e know of no basis for concluding that fugitive dust from the storage and handling of petcoke at the LRTC facility poses health risks or environmental impacts,” wrote Carl Perkins, Manager of the Rodeo refinery.

Likewise, Levin-Richmond denied that its facility yields any adverse impacts on the neighboring community in its letter to City Council

But for those employed by Levin-Richmond, concerns over their jobs trumped environmental concerns. Levin-Richmond wrote in its letter that the ordinance would put the company “out of business,” meaning the loss of 62 jobs, 48 of which are union jobs under the banner of Operating Engineers Union Local 3.

Many who testified said that the terminal site could still be used if it ceases operation as a coal and petcoke terminal. They said it could morph into something which stores components for—or produces—green energy. Some even made the case for the terminal as an exemplar of the type of problem that could be solved by passing a Green New Deal.

Megan Zapanta, Richmond organizer director for the group Asian Pacific Environmental Network, says that part of the purpose of a multi-year phaseout plan is to spearhead a just transition for the workers employed there. These are workers who are, like those who reside in the area, also breathe in the toxic particulates.

“The No Coal in Richmond measure is designed to protect our health and protect good union jobs,” she said. “It gives the corporation more than enough time—3 years—to transition away from transporting coal and petcoke, and switch to transporting something else.”

Levin-Richmond disagrees. It says coal and petcoke are the only commodities which could be stored at its facility.

“[Levin-Richmond] cannot be converted to other uses, if at all, within any period approaching the three years contemplated by the proposed Ordinance,” company CEO Gary Levin wrote in his letter to the City Council. “There is no current, economically viable market for other commodities suitable for transloading at the LRTC facility. Additionally, the facility is located on a property designated as a federal Superfund site as a result of contamination caused by a prior owner.”

The No Coal in Richmond consortium said that project supporters have used a ‘conquer and divide’ tactic to fend off the ordinance.

“The fossil fuel industry’s strategy is to pit working people against each other by posing a false and fundamentally racist choice: that low-income communities of color in cities like Richmond must choose between good jobs and a healthy environment,” the coalition argued on its website. “We know it’s possible to have both.”

Coal’s Last West Coast Stand

Since the emergence of large-scale hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas a bit over a decade ago, the coal industry has faced tight financial margins and a steep economic decline, with many plants retrofitted for shale gas.

This economic reality, in turn, has led to the closure of many coal mines nationwide. It has also led to bankruptcies of some of the largest coal mining companies in the country and the loss of jobs for many coal miners across the United States.

Thus, with an ever-shrinking domestic coal market, the industry is increasingly reliant on the export market. The National Coal Council, an official advisory group for the U.S. Department of Energy, published an entire report in 2018 advocating for more coal exports and for the creation of a Coal Exports Task Force. The National Mining Association, a coal industry trade association and lobbying group, also has its own website dedicated to promoting exports.

And that’s where Richmond comes into play.

Currently, the Levin-Richmond intakes coal mined in Utah at a mine owned by the company Wolverine Fuels, which arrives in Richmond via trains owned by the company Union Pacific. That coal is then exported to Japan.

Wolverine claimed in a letter written to the City Council that if the company cannot ship its product, emissions in Japan will actually rise.

“The coal produced in the State of Utah and shipped by Wolverine to Japan through LRT has a higher heat content, lower sulfur content, lower moisture content and lower ash content than the average seaborne coal in the Pacific market,” wrote Brian Settles, chief administrative officer and general counsel for the company. “Preventing Wolverine from exporting coal through LRT will result in increased global GHG emissions as Japanese utilities will be forced to replace Wolverine’s coal with lower-quality international coal.”

Many West Coast cities with coal terminals,, in the name of combating the climate crisis, have in recent years closed their doors to coal. Richmond is one of only three West Coast cities—alongside Stockton and Long Beach—with a holding terminal for coal destined for the export market. In neighboring Oakland, the City Council voted in 2016 to ban coal terminals in the city.

The terminal in Oakland is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the company Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal LLC, which had aimed to build such a terminal at the Port of Oakland. That suit is expected to receive a ruling in a U.S. appellate court in the coming months. Some who testified at the meeting also cited the Oakland coal terminal lawsuit as a reason why Richmond should be wary of passing its own similar ordinance, a sentiment shared by Mayor Butt.

And it’s more than an empty threat. Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, told the business publication Bloomberg that the coal industry trade association may file a lawsuit if Richmond goes forward with the ban.

“Local governments, working with activist environmental groups, cannot be allowed to obstruct and steer interstate and foreign commerce decisions on behalf of the country,” she said.

Levin-Richmond Vice President Jim Holland also threatened litigation against the city if the ordinance passes.

Butt said his decision to push for an end of the ordinance and a shift to a bargain between all stakeholders stems from a desire to halt a legal battle which “could go on for 10 years.” And he said he knows such a deal will leave all stakeholders dissatisfied.

“Well, you know, typically, when these things get resolved, nobody’s happy with the resolution,” he said. “Nobody gets their first choices for what they want to happen, but sometimes the resolution is better for everybody than the uncertainty that goes with protracted litigation.”

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network’s Zapanta, though, said her group will likely not agree to such an arrangement.

“We’re not here for shady backroom deals that prioritize corporate profits over our health and jobs,” she said. “Many of our council members have shown that they have the courage to stand up to corporations like the Levin Richmond Terminal Corporation, and protect our health. We need our mayor to do the same.”

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.