Above: Members of Richmond College Prep Schools Parents' Group enthusiastically support phasing out coal and petroleum coke operations at the Port of Richmond. The school is less than a mile from the Levin-Richmond Terminal.
The scrappy industrial city of Richmond, CA took a bold step toward a fossil fuel-free future on Tuesday, January 14, 2020, when its city council passed an historic land use ordinance banning the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke in a three-year phaseout. The ordinance officially became law on February 4.
This means that Richmond will no longer be the source of one-fourth of West Coast coal exports to Asian markets, and its children will be able to breathe a little easier. The working class city of Richmond, home to the Chevron refinery and other entrenched polluters, has begun at long last to transition from its dependence on toxic industry.
The Final Hearing The vote itself took exactly one minute. To members of the public who had waited through nearly four tedious hours of discussion of other issues, announcement of the ordinance’s passage came like the sudden, magical sighting of a rare butterfly in flight. (Public comment had been closed following a previous meeting that heard more than 100 speakers provide over three hours of testimony.) There was a slow collective inhale and then a joyous eruption of cheering throughout the council chambers wherever the red-shirted supporters of No Coal in Richmond sat. Opponents of the ordinance met the announcement with stunned silence. Outside the council chambers one heard angry, muttered talk that a “fix was in” and vows that the fight had just begun.
Previous hearings on the ordinance had been far lengthier and acrimonious affairs—marathon demonstrations of a community polarized around fossil fuels. For environmental justice activists, the depth of anger and resistance on the part of local industrial unions came as a shock. Certainly the battle lines were familiar, the old “environment vs. jobs” script getting a new, invigorated reading. But the stakes were higher this time around, with the Western States Petroleum Association mobilizing its new Building Trades allies to large, organized displays of class anger. “Is my job too dirty for you?” nearly drowned out calls for clean green jobs and community health. Terminal workers seemed unmoved by the medical testimony they heard about Richmond’s high levels of asthma and heart disease as well as the serious public health impacts of coal and pet coke dust.
How We Got Here The alliance among environmental activists, city progressives, public health experts, and members of the faith and small business communities held strong in the face of this formidable opposition. Organizing had begun in November 2017, when Minda Berbeco, ED of the SF Bay Sierra Club, called a kick-off meeting to discuss the campaign launch to stop Bay Area coal exports. The Richmond city council had already banned coal export from city-owned facilities, but the privately-owned Levin-Richmond Terminal (LRT) was steadily increasing the quantities of Utah coal it was storing in uncovered piles on its wharf. In 2017, the Levin-Richmond terminal shipped over 1.1 million metric tons of coal, a 300% increase over its 2016 coal shipments. Richmond residents from all over the city—whether living next to the rail lines, where mile-long open car coal trains passed weekly, or in the higher-rent Marina district a mile downwind from the terminal—were increasingly alarmed by the greasy black dust coating their window sills and cars. People worried about the growing quantity of dust and the state of their lungs began to reach out to the mayor with their concerns,
A draft land-use ordinance was written and presented to city staff for review, and a campaign strategy began to unfold after months of deliberation about how to proceed. Veteran environmental activists, some fresh from the fight against coal export in Oakland, began to work alongside Richmond community members. Janet Johnson of the Sunflower Alliance sent waves of canvassers into the community to collect signatures on letters to the mayor and city council in support of the ordinance. She coordinated the various efforts of No Coal in Richmond volunteers, who created and maintained a comprehensive website, undertook research, wrote position papers, recruited public health and legal expert testimony, collected endorsements from unions (California Nurses Association and the United Teachers of Richmond CTA/NEA) and local businesses, repeatedly lobbied city council members, spoke before neighborhood council meetings and faith groups, and engaged in countless other manifestations of an effective inside/outside strategy. The core group remained cohesive even when political pressure was applied to revise the ordinance and de-escalate the demands—i.e., drop pet coke. Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, the sponsor of the ordinance, set an inspiring example in his refusal to back down and his unwavering belief that residents and workers in Richmond deserve far better than coal and refining dregs.
The Fight Continues… The two-year No Coal in Richmond campaign has been a veritable rollercoaster, with plot twists and turns and more than a little political intrigue sparked by the opposition from industrial labor. One clear takeaway: The anti-coal campaign may have won a decisive and historic victory, but the struggle is not yet over. Wolverine Fuels in Utah and LRT have promised a lawsuit against the City of Richmond, and no doubt they will deliver on that promise. But above and beyond whatever happens in the courts, there is still much work to be done to initiate a real dialogue—and détente—with industrial labor.
Two-thirds of what the terminal has been storing and handling for maritime export is Utah coal bound for Japan. The remaining third is petroleum coke (or "pet coke"), a heavy metals–laden residue of oil refining, whose sole source is the Phillips 66 refinery 13 miles north in Rodeo. (Chevron burns its pet coke, and Shell and Marathon in Martinez ship from the modern Koch Carbon facility in Pittsburg. Valero ships its pet coke directly from its Benicia refinery.) It was Phillips 66 that sounded the alarm to allied Building Trades locals throughout Northern California to join the fight against the ordinance, as it would require the refiner to ship its pet coke from another facility. Compounding this, the 62 workers at LRT, 48 of them members of Operating Engineers Local 3, have been persuaded by terminal management that their jobs are on the line: Levin insists there are no non-toxic alternative commodities available for it to ship, and the terminal will therefore have to shut down. There is no reason to believe that those attitudes have softened. Environmental activists and their allies would very much like to see the terminal survive and modernize, with a smooth transition to other commodities and no job loss going forward.
This is a real and urgent test case for the Just Transition we all want to see happen. The challenge before us now is: Can we help broker a Green New Deal in Richmond? – Shoshana Wechsler, Sunflower Alliance and 350 Bay Area Policy Team