Richmond council kicks coal ban vote to January 2020
on December 4, 2019
After more than six hours of hot debate Tuesday night on a proposed ban of coal and petroleum coke in Richmond, the city council acceded to Mayor Tom Butt’s wishes and decided in a split vote to postpone the item until its January 14 meeting.
Tireless hands held posters flashing with different slogans: “No Coal in Richmond,” “Ban Coal,” and “Are Our Jobs Too Dirty?” The impassioned messages mirrored the mix of groups debating the most contentious proposal that has passed through its chambers in months: an ordinance that could end the yearly export of over a million metric tons of coal and petroleum coke from Levin-Richmond Terminal Corp., located in the city’s port.
The December 3 hearing saw environmentalists, union members, doctors and community members stake out positions that could define the council’s 2020 vote on the potential ban on the storage and handling of coal and “pet coke” – a gritty byproduct of the oil refining process. If passed, the rule would also eliminate zoning ordinances’ allowance of some coal and coke handling in industrial zones.
Oakland’s ban on the storage and processing of coal and pet coke in 2016 provides a potential precedent for such legislation in the Bay Area. The Richmond measure’s main focus is Levin-Richmond Terminal, currently the only known coal and coke handler whose activities would violate the rule.
“The adoption of the ordinance is likely to put the terminal out of business,” said Jim Holland, Levin-Richmond Terminal Corp.’s vice president. “Levin would have no choice [other] than to seek litigation,” he added.
Dust from pet coke and coal can harm heart and lung heath, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The proposed legislation represents a response to air quality complaints from residents, according to an agenda report.
“I can clean the outdoor table off…every week…come back the next day and there’s black grime on it. This is real,” resident Tarnel Abbott said.
Policy aimed at pushing coal and coke out of Richmond has been in the works for the past year. In December 2018, the city council unanimously directed city staff to study how to ban the storage and handling of the materials, and in April it unanimously directed the Planning Commission to review amendments that would disallow the substances’ presence in industrial zones.
But the Planning Commission recommended that the council not adopt the ordinance, saying it wasn’t obvious that it was “necessary for public health, safety and welfare” and that the impact of coal and pet coke required more study.
Several union members urged the council not to contradict the commission by voting to ban coke and coal without further research. Most stressed the loss of Levin-Richmond Terminal jobs the ban could bring.
However, union and environmentalist speakers alike objected to the idea that labor and climate responsibility are at odds.
“Energy industry workers are not evil…we absolutely care a great deal about the environment, contrary to popular belief,” said Tyson Bagley, a Phillips 66 employee and Local 326 member.
“The Richmond community should not and does not have to choose between good jobs and clean air,” said Aaron Isherwood, an attorney for the Sierra Club.
“What is our own local Green New Deal? How are we going to care for these people?” asked former Richmond councilmember Dr. Jeff Ritterman, who was also cardiology chief at Kaiser Richmond.
Richmonders’ high risk of health problems and accelerating global climate change provided context for the coal and coke issue. “More than fifty percent” of her patients have asthma,
said Dr. Amanda Millstein, a doctor at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Physicians Hilltop Pediatrics.
“It is not every day that a city council has the opportunity to vote on something that could save a child’s life,” Millstein said.
“Calling for more study is nothing more than reorganizing deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Ben Eichenberg, an attorney for San Francisco Baykeeper, a nonprofit working to mitigate pollution in the Bay.
Under the proposed rule, Richmond would “prohibit new land uses and phase out existing land uses related to the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke.” Effectively, that could ban new storage and handling, while allowing companies now engaged in such business to phase it out over three years.
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