Planning Commission delays recommendation on Richmond Coal ordinance
The challenges of just transition played out dramatically at the Richmond Planning Commission on July 18. The commission was considering a proposal to recommend that the City Council adopt an ordinance phasing out the use of the Richmond Levin Terminal (RLT) for storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke (pet coke). The meeting chambers filled to overflowing, with environmental activists outnumbered by members of the building trades unions. Dozens of people spoke passionately about the health impacts of these commodities; and others, equally passionately, about the threat of losing their jobs—the familiar divide. After 11 pm the commission voted to recommend delaying a decision until more data is gathered about the effect of the ordinance, both about economic impacts and about pollution. Gathering that data will take years. The Planning Commission’s vote is advisory, and the City Council could still pass the proposed ordinance; but the City Council will grapple with the same concerns and pressures.
The entire hearing can be viewed at http://richmond.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=4524. You can scroll to the end to hear the commissioners justify their vote to delay a decision.
The proposed ordinance provides a three year window (“amortization period”) for the terminal to phase out coal and pet coke, with opportunity for extension. Supporters of the ordinance believe this provides adequate time for RLT to source other commodities. The workers believe that ending the handling of these products means the terminal must close down, as terminal owner Gary Levin insisted in his testimony and in response to questions after hours of public comment.
Shoshana Wechsler offered this cogent analysis of the evening:
[W]orkers from a multitude of local unions…responded to a very loud alarm sounded by Phillips 66. P66 had whined about the increased costs it would face if the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke were phased out at the Levin Terminal in Richmond, causing them to truck their pet coke, a highly toxic refining residue, to a covered export facility in Pittsburg, instead of shipping it out of Levin—which leaves it in huge uncovered piles that blow poisonous dust all over the neighborhood. So P66 reached out to the state-level Building Trades, now in formal alliance with WSPA, the Western States Petroleum Association, and the resulting turnout was a real and troubling display of fossil fuel industry power.
…What is clear from this is that WSPA has decided to draw a line in the sand in Richmond. And the intransigent Building Trades, Operating Engineers, United Steel Workers, and others, have at least for now replaced Solidarity Forever with Fossil Fuels Forever.
Supporters of the ordinance arrived at Richmond Civic Plaza with signs–“Ban Coal Now”– and a variety of hand-made placards as well as tee shirts, and set up for a rally, when a large group of opponents arrived chanting “Union Jobs Now” and carrying printed signs (“It’s Our Richmond Too,” “Jobs”). Their chants almost drowned out the first speakers at the rally, John Gioia (the president of the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors and a member of the Board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District) and Eduardo Martinez, the Richmond City Councilmember who proposed the ordinance. Video of the rally produced by Jay Wilson can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGwdPFfKUDQ&feature=youtu.be.
Ironically, Gioia’s message was that we can both phase out coal and protect jobs.
The union members moved to the doors of the building where the hearing would be held, as did many supporters of the ordinance. Some conversations between people in the two groups took place there. It was evident that the workers sincerely believed that the ordinance means the terminal would shut down, they would be out of their jobs, and the refineries would be next.
The hearing began with a staff proposal to shut down a cannabis facility that owes back taxes amounting to six figures, has made structural changes without permits, failed to provide requested documentation, etc. The owner of the business seemed ready to move out of Richmond. After an hour’s discussion, the Commission voted to give the business owner more time to work things out with the city—a harbinger of their priority on retaining local businesses at all costs.
Planning Department Director of Planning and Building Services Lina Velasco gave background on the No Coal ordinance, and the department’s reasons for recommending adoption. Over 60 people had submitted speakers’ cards and the Commission allowed each to have up to two minutes. There was some attrition as the meeting dragged on, but about 21 people spoke on each side.
There were speakers from the Sierra Club, San Francisco Baykeepers, and Communities for a Better Environment, but most supporters of the ordinance were community members. Nearly all identifying themselves as Richmond residents, they spoke both from experience and about the science regarding health impacts of coal and pet coke dust visible in their neighborhoods. They made it clear that the terminal does not need to shut down, just to shift to cleaner commodities. Many identified their own union affiliations. A teacher reported that her students’ backpacks contained pens, paper, and inhalers. A mother held a 3-year-old and spoke about considering impact of our actions in seven generations. A key organizer in the campaign quoted William H. Stewart, Surgeon General under Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon: “Must we wait until we prove every link in the chain of causation? In protecting health, absolute proof comes too late. To wait for it is to invite disaster or to prolong suffering unnecessarily.”
The opposition to the ordinance included rank and file members of Operating Engineers Local 3, which represents the people employed at Levin, as well as people in the Ironworkers, Boilermakers and Steelworkers unions, which represent workers at local refineries. About a half dozen identified themselves as union officials.
When Levin workers spoke, the other unionists in the audience stood in support, raising their signs.
There was also a speaker from the Council of Industries, which advocates for the interests of business and industry in West Contra Costa County on economic, social, and political issues.
Levin’s attorney, Chris Locke of Farella, Braun + Martel, said that the city could expect legal action based on constitutional issues and “taking” of property. The ordinance has been crafted to withstand these challenges, but no one supporting the ordinance expected that Levin would shift gears without a legal fight.
Testimony of Gary Levin
The last testimony of the evening was from Gary Levin, who owns the terminal facility. He insisted there were no other products he could ship. (A quick Google search by one us found that bulk shipping on the west coast has not “dried up” as Levin said. In the northwest, for example, there were exports in 2018 of wheat and other grains, soya, potash, soda ash, metals and ores, and chemicals. These are all alternatives to coal and pet coke.)
Levin had ten minutes to make his case, and then a longer time to answer questions, and he had the last word. He and his lawyer referred to documents they sent to the commission the day before the hearing, which activists had not had a chance to review or rebut.
There are 62 workers at the terminal and the associated railroad. Currently they ship about 1 million metric tons of coal, 300,000 of pet coke and 150,000 of scrap metal. They have shipped pet coke for 30 years and coal for 6. They began handling coal in response to overtures from Utah, the same coal company (now Wolverine) that has financed Phil Tagami’s efforts to build a terminal in Oakland (efforts that are currently in litigation). Levin said, “coal exports saved the terminal.”
The coal is shipped to Japan, which needs it after shutting down nuclear facilities because of Fukushima. He described the process of handling the coal and pet coke, focusing on their “mitigating measures,” but acknowledged that there were piles on the ground “temporarily” without saying how often, for how long, or how much.
One interesting piece of information from Levin’s testimony regarded the conditional use permit for the LRT, which No Coal in Richmond had tried to obtain in order to verify compliance. At the hearing we learned that the facility does not have any permits.
The commissioners, many of whom had indicated support for the ordinance before the hearing, all decided not to endorse it at this time. They voted for delay—more study of the health impacts of coal and pet coke (via AB 617 monitoring and possibly a study funded by Levin), as well as of the economic impacts (other commodities for the terminal, possible job losses). This delay ignores a request from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to move forward without waiting for more studies.
Social media disinformation
The industry’s social media campaign on Facebook and Instagram said supporters of the ordinance don’t have our facts straight, don’t live in Richmond, and want to shut down the terminal and replace it with condos. Posts challenging these lies were removed from the sites.
Activists began debriefing and discussing next steps as they walked out of the hearing.
No Coal in Richmond—outreach
No Coal in Richmond has been canvassing door-to-door and tabling at community events, obtaining over 1,700 signatures to-date in support of the ordinance. The group will continue to reach out, including expansion of its outreach to the faith community. Now more than ever, No Coal in Richmond needs your strong support. You can plug in by visiting https://ncir.weebly.com/ or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A meeting will be held in early August to discuss next steps in the campaign. If you are interested in organizing in Richmond contact email@example.com and put “No Coal Debrief” in the subject line.
The hearing highlighted the need to work together with unions and provide an alternative to the industry lies. Plans are underway for activists who have connections with union officials to meet with them, continuing and extending the dialogues that took place the night of the hearing. Many union officials may understand that coal is a dying industry, but may be holding on for as long as they can. Every delaying tactic, like waiting for AB 617 results, buys them time. (Of course it does just the opposite for the climate.) The workers are terrified about their futures. We can say that’s a short term perspective given the terrifying future of the planet, but the near term impact of economic shifts probably feels a lot more imminent and personal for many of them.
Labor activists concerned about the environment are working to concretize “just transition” with programs that provide alternative employment. There must be work that is sustainable for both the environment and the worker’s families, and support for retraining. This is another area for activism. Labor for Climate, Jobs and Justice, the local affiliate of the Labor Network for Sustainability, is a resource for anyone interested in contributing to such projects. (https://www.facebook.com/labor4climatejobsjustice/)