Here is what we know. Levin Terminal in Richmond stores and ships coal and petcoke out of its Richmond terminal. Coal comes in by train with open cars. Petcoke comes in by trucks from the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo. Both go out by ship, mostly to Asia. There is coal dust in parts of Richmond, which is not good for your health. We don’t know how much, and we don’t know if it is coming from train cars or from terminal operations, or both. We know that burning coal produces harmful pollution and greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change. This is not the future; this is now. We are already suffering from climate change in Richmond, primarily from the growing frequency of wildfire smoke, and most recently, from PSPS electricity shutdowns.
Moving away from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, is a good thing. Even an essential thing. You would think we could all come together and figure this out.
But no – we are going to fight about it instead. Like at the mythical Armageddon, the armies of good and evil are now gathering for an apocalyptic battle over coal in Richmond on December 3, 2019. The only problem is that it is difficult to tell which is good and which is evil, and there are no prospective heroes.
On December 3, the City Council will consider an amendment to the Richmond Zoning Ordinance, written by the Sierra Club, that will shut down coal and pet coke shipments out of Richmond from Levin Terminal in three years. The impetus behind the immediate action is primarily the Sierra Club, allied with the ragtag remnants of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), to form an organization called “No Coal in Richmond,” a mysterious entity that meets at the RPA headquarters but has no identified individuals as leaders. Based on the No Coal in Richmond web page, there are various supporting individuals and organizations, including 350 East Bay, 350 Silicon Valley, APEN, NRDC, RPA, Sunflower Alliance and Youth vs. Apocalypse. He website has support letters from SF Baykeeper, UTR, Bridge Storage and Westech Roofing.
The Sierra Club is trying to burnish its image as an urban power broker and help revive the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s flagging profile. Back in the day, the Sierra Club was about preserving wilderness, and we all loved it and wanted to be a part of it. Today, however, the Sierra Club has gone urban and panders to NIMBYs, preferring to micromanage public policy in places like Richmond, stop urban housing developments, and shake down whomever they can for money. This is the same Sierra Club that agreed to support a casino at Point Molate in exchange for tens of millions of dollars.
Then we have labor. Product handling and loading jobs at Levin Terminal are primarily held by members of Operating Engineers Local 3, who have prevailed on their brothers and sisters in the Building and Construction Trades to mount a massive opposition to the proposed ordinance that would shut down coal and pet coke handling in Richmond, and they are putting City Council members under intense pressure.
Does this make any sense? First of all, there is no scenario for any job loss for years to come. The proposed ordinance has been drafted for a shutdown after three years, but it includes a process for extending that period of time. If Levin chooses to litigate, that could add another five years. By that time, coal may be dead in the water anyway. But what about the union motivations? Climate change is here, and it’s killing us. It’s just going to get worse without dramatic action. What do these folks care most about – preserving a job in a dying industry or the future of their kids and grandkids? In this still red hot economy, there is a good job out there for any skilled union construction worker. Loading coal is not a job of last resort, and it is certainly not the healthiest union job around.
What about Levine Terminal? Like labor, these people have kids and grandkids too, but they have ignored that and pursued a business model based 100% on coal and pet coke. They have been approached about participating in a voluntary phase out of coal but have steadfastly refused. The word is they would rather fight than switch. Obviously, money is more important to them than climate change or community health.
Then you have Phillips 66, the source of petcoke, from its Rodeo refinery. Petcoke is not quite the villain that coal is. Unlike coal, it is used in manufacturing as well as fuel, and it arrives to Richmond in covered trucks. No one has actually identified petcoke as a particulate circulating in Richmond air. The Phillips 66 people threaten, however, that if Richmond ceases to be available as a shipping port, they will truck their refinery dregs to Stockton or Pittsburg, creating even more greenhouse gas and exacerbating traffic problems on already overloaded roadways. This sounds a little like extortion to me, and Phillips 66 is no hero. The fuels they and other refiners produce are responsible for 40% of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. They could remodel their refinery to produce asphalt, like Chevron, instead of petcoke. They could go into the electric car business. But they would rather maintain the status quo, feeding climate change, selling fossil fuels and petcoke, and creating a world their kids and grandkids may not be able to live in.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District could have solved this years ago by adopting a rule the South Coast Air Quality District adopted decades ago that required covering of coal and pertcoke handling facilities. But they didn’t. They pawned it off on the City of Richmond and instead offered an interminable air quality testing program that will tell us what we already know – there is coal dust in Richmond.
The City of Richmond Planning and Building Services Department could have red-tagged Levin years ago for constructing buildings and coal handling facilities without a permit. But they didn’t. They turned a blind eye and left the City Council to sort it out.
So here we are with corporations, public agencies and non-profits all posturing for their own self-interest. There are no heroes in this upcoming battle, only different shades of greed.