Environmental Groups Join Richmond, California In the Fight to Phase Out Coal

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Coal? In the Bay Area? Phillips 66 and others sue the City of Richmond to stop city ordinance to phase out coal in the city to protect its citizen's health and the local environment. The good people of Richmond are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.

When I think of the storage and handling of coal, a city in California’s Bay Area does not come to mind. Yet the Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond handles coal and petroleum coke (petcoke).

For two years, the city council and community members have looked at ways to reduce coal dust in the city. In February 2020, the city adopted an ordinance to phase out the handling of coal in the city within three years. In March, the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, petrochemical company Phillips 66, and coal company Wolverine Fuels filed lawsuits against the city of Richmond.

The Sierra Club and San Francisco Baykeeper filed a motion to be full parties in the lawsuits to defend the city of Richmond’s ordinance phase out the storage and handling of coal and petcoke in the city. The legal environmental justice group Earthjustice represents the groups.

“We’re intervening because the health and safety of Richmond community members are on the line,” said Anna Stimmel, staff attorney at Earthjustice, in a statement. 

"Most people don't think of the Bay Area as coal country, but the industry's recent attempts to move millions of tons of dirty coal through our cities prove otherwise and put us all at risk,” said San Francisco Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh

Coal and petcoke cause pollution

Dust from coal and petcoke handling and storage contains fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and chromium which can cause health problems. A recent study looked at COVID-19 death counts for over 3,000 counties in the U.S. What researchers found is that a small increase of long-term exposure of PM 2.5 is linked with an eight percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. One study found a link between PM 2.5 exposure during in school children and cognitive problems. Another study linked higher cardiopulmonary and lung cancer death rates with long-term exposure to PM 2.5.

Coal and petcoke also emit particulate matter (PM 10). Exposure to PM 10 is linked with premature death from heart or lung disease, non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms.

The city has very high asthma rates. Richmond had the highest rates of emergency room visits in 2014 for asthma in Contra Costa County. The city has five K-12th that serve 1,789 schools within a mile of the terminal.

A report released in 2019 looked at the coal operations at the Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond and notes that the city’s poor socio-economic status and high rates of chronic disease puts the population at high risk of poor health from air pollution. Chemical analysis found coal dust at six residences within a mile of the Levin-Richmond Terminal. The report noted that the Levin-Richmond Terminal uses open coal pits and “does not use best practices of using wind barrier fencing and spraying dust suppressant to minimize coal dust blowing to surrounding residential communities.” The report also found that local health-related cost from coal operations is $500 million annually. Phasing out coal and petcoke storage and handling will improve the health of city residents. 

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