Richmond coal exports to end by 2026; EJ advocates celebrate agreement

  • Aerial view of the Richmond-Level coal terminal. Image credit: SF Baykeeper.

The days of coal passing through the port of Richmond, California, are numbered thanks to a settlement of federal and state lawsuits. The settlement gives the Levin-Richmond Terminal until Dec. 31, 2026, to end storage and handling of coal and pet coke. Richmond’s City Council voted in 2020 to phase out these toxic commodities, allowing Levin-Richmond three years to comply. Fossil fuel interests responded by filing five lawsuits, claiming Richmond’s coal ban violated the U.S Constitution and other laws.

In settling, the fossil fuel plaintiffs dropped their fight against the ban in exchange for a delay in its enforcement. In the meantime, they also agreed to implement significant mitigation measures to reduce dust from the terminal blowing into nearby residential neighborhoods.

“This settlement marks the end of coal in Richmond — and most importantly, coal dust in Richmond residents’ lungs,” said Anna Stimmel, attorney at Earthjustice who represented Sierra Club and San Francisco Baykeeper as intervenors in federal court.

“That will bring much-needed relief for families living and breathing near the Levin Terminal,” she explained. “The City of Richmond will also have the authority to inspect the Levin Terminal to ensure the company follows through on its promises to adopt additional safety measures to help protect the health of local residents between now and when coal is completely out of Richmond in 2026.”

The four entities that sued the city — Levin-Richmond Terminal, Phillips 66 refinery, Utah coal producer Wolverine LLC, and the State of Utah — agreed to dismiss their litigation with prejudice, meaning they cannot restart it.

The grassroots campaign to stop the use of the Levin Terminal for coal and pet coke was spearheaded by No Coal in Richmond, a two-year effort that involved lobbying city officials, speaking at public events, recruiting researchers, door-to-door canvassing, and maintaining a website. (See Victory for No Coal in Richmond: How It Happened.)

“We’ve got a firm end date without the possibility of extension, and in the meantime the terminal will provide mitigation measures to protect nearby residents and businesses,” said Janet Johnson of No Coal in Richmond, responding to news of the settlement. “Richmond can be proud of our city council members who fought for the community to get us the best deal, one that sets a good precedent.”

The grassroots effort had the support of environmental and community organizations including Communities for a Better Environment, Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, Sunflower Alliance, San Francisco Baykeeper, No Coal in Oakland, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Richmond Progressive Alliance, United Teachers of Richmond CTA/NEA, Interfaith Climate Action Network of Contra Costa County, and California Nurses Association.

Three Richmond council members — Eduardo Martinez, Claudia Jimenez, and Nat Bates — participated in a mediation before retired Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte and met with representatives of Levin, Phillips 66, and Wolverine.

The ten mitigation measures included in the settlement require Levin to erect a canopy over the rail unloading facility conveyers and build wind fences around stockpiles. Levin will also add 140 additional water misters to further reduce dust. It will suspend operations when wind speeds reach 18 miles per hour — half the speed at which this is currently required. Wolverine, the Utah coal company that mines and ships the coal to Richmond, must add a dust control binding agent to the top of each rail car. This will enhance protection from “fugitive dust” on the open rail cars.

Labor Issues Remain Unresolved

Levin employs 60 to 70 employees who are represented by the Operating Engineers Local 3, a major player in building trades politics. The State Building and Construction Trades Council has formed an alliance with the Western States Petroleum Association to oppose restrictions on the oil industry. Because a Phillips 66 refinery is the source of pet coke shipped through Richmond, this labor alliance opposed the Richmond ordinance as a restriction on the byproduct of petroleum refining. A large number of workers were mobilized to attend meetings of Richmond’s Planning Commission and City Council, and workers in the construction trades showed up en masse to express opposition at the 2020 meeting at which the City Council enacted the ordinance. Anti-coal activists who support labor found themselves in a painful position. Recently, however, Phillips 66 is considering a transition to biofuels, which would eliminate pet coke from its product line. The impact of this transition on their workforce is unknown at this time.

Although thrilled that Richmond’s ban of coal and pet coke will go into effect, environmental justice activists are also concerned about the potential loss of jobs by those who have been handling coal. The delay in enforcing the ban may solve the problem if Levin uses the extra time to line up alternative commodities. The possibility of finding alternatives is not fanciful: Levin only began shipping coal in 2013 after shipping other products for the preceding half century.

If this transition reduces jobs on the site, activists have vowed to advocate for a just transition to work that is comparably compensated.

So what are the implications for Oakland?

Had the Richmond litigation played out, it might have resolved some of the lurking legal issues concerning the authority of cities and states to regulate the faltering U.S. coal industry’s drive to build export facilities on the West Coast. But these questions are not currently at issue between the city and the developers in Oakland, where competing breach of contract claims under state law are slated to be argued in a trial scheduled for March 2022.

The coal company that ships through Richmond – Wolverine – is the same one, then known as Bowie Resource Partners, that originally led the effort to build the Oakland coal export facility, fronted by a 100% owned subsidiary named Terminal Logistics Solutions. This settlement could make Wolverine more determined (or more desperate) to build and use a coal shipping facility in Oakland.

Or perhaps Wolverine is now casting an eye to the south. Levin and Wolverine claimed in the federal litigation that if the Richmond terminal is not available, coal exports to Japan may be shipped from terminals in Mexico.

We shall see. Activists in the U.S., Mexico, and Japan continue to vigilantly monitor the toxic coal industry’s death throes.



Image credit: SF Baykeeper.