RICHMOND (KPIX 5) – The Bay Area and Coal Country seem worlds apart. But it turns out the San Francisco Bay plays a critical role in the export of coal to Asia.
Unbeknown to most, the bay is home to one of only two deep sea ports on the entire West Coast that export coal to Asia. It has become the latest flashpoint in the fight against global warming.
Week after week, trains carrying coal from Utah unload their cargo at the Levin Richmond Marine Terminal in Richmond. Trucks full of petroleum coke, an oil industry byproduct that is also known as petcoke, also drive in from the nearby Phillips 66 refinery.
From here, the coal and petcoke are transferred onto ships headed for Asia where they are burned as fuels. It's a thriving business that Richmond residents say is happening at the expense of their health.
Dalia and her mom Lauren Schiffman were among the thousands of Richmond residents that fought to stop coal shipments through their town.
"I know the dangers of coal dust. These train cars travel through residential neighborhoods in Richmond," said Lauren Schiffman.
"Obviously I don't like it. I get that this is very bad for the environment, not just the whole pollution of the town thing, but like it's basically the pollution of the world," said Dalia Schiffman.
The pushback from residents resulted in a new city ordinance (.pdf) that phases out the storage and handling of coal and petcoke over three years.
But now the Levin Richmond Terminal, Wolverine Fuels, the Utah coal company that exports the coal, along with Phillips 66, which exports the petcoke, have all gone to court seeking to overturn the ordinance. They claim among other things that it violates their constitutional right to free commerce.
"The fossil fuel industry decided they didn't like that ban and challenged it in court. So now all of us are in court defending that ban," said Sejal Choksi Chugh, Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper.
The Baykeeper, along with the Sierra Club, are supporting the City of Richmond in its legal battle.
The Baykeeper's patrol boat has been monitoring the Levin terminal from the water for years, to make sure the coal dust isn't polluting the bay.
"The coal industry is trying to get more than 11 million tons of coal out of Bay Area ports. And what they're trying to do is basically make the Bay Area coal country," said Choksi Chugh.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which tracks trade, shows that coal exports through the Levin Richmond terminal skyrocketed from 120,000 metric tons in 2016 to 738,000 in 2019, a 615% increase.
From the air, one can see why Richmond residents are at risk. Train tracks run right next to neighborhoods that have been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as "disadvantaged" because of the many sources of air pollution they are exposed to. That includes two freeways and the Chevron oil refinery.
"This is an absolutely huge deal," said Dr. Amanda Millstein, a Richmond pediatrician that also pushed for the coal ban and is speaking out now to defend it.
"We know that the particulate matter that is released into the air from coal dust, from petroleum coke dust, is toxic and is making people sick," Millstein told KPIX 5.
The pediatrician said many of her young patients attend school just half a mile away from the terminal.
"The insides of their classrooms are covered in coal dust. By the end of the day, the cars are covered in coal dust. I mean if that is what is inside their classrooms and on their cars it's in their lungs. It's just the reality of it," Millstein said.
A spokesperson for the Levin Richmond Terminal told KPIX 5 they can't comment because of the lawsuit. And our cameras were not welcome outside the facility.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt had plenty to say. "It's costing the city a lot of money," the mayor said.
He says the Sierra Club drafted the coal ordinance but now won't cover the city's cost of defending it. "They are not poor, they are a million dollar a year operation. But you know once the ordinance was passed, they basically cut the city loose," said Butt.
He says he was ready to settle with Levin before the ordinance passed, and is ready again.
"If Levin was willing to agree to cease this operation say in seven years, you know, it might take seven years to work through this lawsuit," said Butt.
Lauren and Dalia Schiffman hope the owners of the Levin Terminal and the Utah coal company will just back off, and leave the ordinance standing.
"I think it's obvious, the writing is on the wall that we need to make these changes to make California livable for our kids," said Schiffman.
"I'm like a 13-year-old girl. Please, please, please think about our generation's future and how every little action that you're doing is affecting us," said Dalia.
The Sierra Club flatly denies that it ever promised to pay the city's legal fees. Phillips 66 told KPIX 5 it can't comment because of the pending lawsuit. And Wolverine Fuels, the Utah coal company, never got back to us.
A very similar story recently played out in Oakland. That city also passed a coal ordinance to stop a plan to build a new coal terminal at the Port of Oakland. Wolverine Fuels under the former name of Bowie Resource Partners sued to overturn the ordinance. Just this summer, the coal company won on appeal.
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