The Courage to Ban Coal

Jan 2, 2020
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

I’ve heard locals describe a film of black dust on cars, windowsills, and playground structures in the city of Richmond. Sadly, it’s often coal dust. And it’s toxic—linked to asthma, heart disease, and other illnesses.  

When it rains, that toxic dust can get washed and blown into San Francisco Bay, where it can harm wildlife, too. Once in the water, the Bay’s tiniest creatures absorb poisonous components, like arsenic and mercury, from coal. Those toxics move up the Bay’s food chain into fish and other animals.

And the coal and oil industries are fighting hard to keep it this way.

The dust comes from open train cars filled with coal that rumble through residential Richmond neighborhoods to the Levin Richmond shipping terminal on the Bay shoreline. While awaiting export, these long coal trains sit on tracks in neighborhoods outside the terminal. On windy days, the dust can blow as far as 1.4 miles away, landing in the city or the Bay’s water.

Last year, the terminal loaded more than a million tons of coal onto ships headed overseas.  

That’s why Richmond officials proposed a new zoning ordinance to phase out the handling and storage of coal in the city. 

This action took a lot of courage. The ordinance will make Richmond a healthier place to live and work, and reduce toxic pollution in San Francisco Bay. It’s also a local effort to combat the global climate crisis, which is made worse by the worldwide burning of too much coal.

But the Levin terminal claims that if they can’t export coal, the company will go out of business. The facts just don’t support that claim. 

Richmond’s coal exports increased only during the last three years. The terminal has been shipping out other materials for decades, including iron ore and recyclable materials. And with the Bay Area lacking sufficient sand and gravel to meet local needs, the terminal could bring in those materials.   

Instead, the coal lobbyists are repeating the tired claim that this is a battle between jobs and the environment. And the oil industry has joined in, because Richmond’s coal ban would restrict exports of petroleum coke. Petcoke, for short, is a toxic byproduct of oil refining. It looks like coal, burns dirty like coal, and is also exported from the Levin terminal. Bay Area oil refineries could export their petcoke from an enclosed Pittsburg export facility, but the industry wants to maintain its cheaper, dirtier Richmond export option.

At a Richmond City Council meeting in December, things got ugly. Coal lobbyists and refinery workers bullied those who came to testify in favor of the coal ban, interrupting with yells and racial slurs. They called for postponing the ban until more studies are done. But more studies are unnecessary. Delay helps corporate coal profits, not kids suffering from asthma or birds eating contaminated San Francisco Bay fish. 

The city council scheduled a vote for January 14th, but there are rumors that Richmond officials may postpone or cancel the vote. Richmond leaders need to hold on to their courage, and pass this phaseout of coal. It’s the right thing to do for their community’s health, the Bay, and future generations. 

Headshot photo by Gail Odom

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