Bay Area port city remains undecided on proposal that would disrupt Utah coal exports

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1 million tons of Utah-mined coal passes through the Levin-Richmond Terminal on the San Francisco Bay each year on its way to Japan. The city of Richmond, Calif., where the terminal has operated for 37 years, is poised to ban coal handling, potentially blocking a key export pathway for Utah's coal production.

Leaders of a Bay Area port city listened to several hours of testimony Tuesday night, imploring them to either enact or reject a proposed ordinance that would ban the handling of coal.

In the end, the Richmond City Council decided it would wait another month before voting on the proposed ban, which would choke off a key export point for Utah-mined coal and potentially eliminate coveted union jobs on Richmond’s waterfront.

Public health activists argued city officials had sufficient information to act.

“All you need is a rational basis. There is a long history of coal being dangerous to people who breathe it,” community organizer Andres Soto said. “We know those are dying industries, and we need to kill those industries in order to save our planet.”

[Read more: Bay Area city might ban coal handling, shutting down a key overseas export point for Utah mines]

Ban proponents, including Mayor Tom Butt, contend coal-dust emissions associated with the Levin-Richmond Terminal, where trains offload coal in piles that are then put onto ships, pose a threat to public health and safety.

Terminal operators and their labor union allies say the city lacks the data to show coal dust is even escaping from its rail-to-ship operations, much less harming public health in this city filled with heavy industry on the San Francisco Bay’s northeast shore.

“Central to this is the right to work, to choose one’s career," said terminal employee Tony Lester, “or whether it is right to fixate on something disagreeable, to eradicate that regardless of the impact on individuals, families, the community or facts.”

For the past year, Richmond officials have been developing the ordinance to prohibit new land uses associated with the handling and storage of coal and petroleum coke, products that have been passing through the terminal in increasing volumes in recent years. As the shipments grew, so did complaints from Richmond residents objecting to a dark dust settling on their homes and streets.

“There is ample evidence that coal and petroleum coke uses emit particulates that harm air quality and public health,” wrote Richmond’s planning director and senior attorney in a Dec. 3 memo to the City Council. “The need to reduce emissions in Richmond is well known, and the city has the independent authority to adopt the ordinance under its police powers.”

As proposed, the ordinance would provide a three-year phaseout window to give a preexisting coal handler, such as the Levin-Richmond Terminal, time to transition to different commodities and recoup its investment in coal-handling equipment.

But terminal executive Jim Holland told the council Tuesday that the ban would likely put the terminal out of business, taking 62 good-paying jobs with it.

“There is no current market for commodities suitable for transloading at the terminal that would offer an economically viable alternative to coal and petroleum coke,” Holland said. “The ordinance fails to consider market conditions and the unique nature of the facilities. We want to be a good neighbor. We have been here 37 years. If the city proceeds to adopt the ordinance, Levin would have no choice but to pursue judicial remedies in litigation.”

Also threatening to sue is Wolverine Fuels, Utah’s largest coal producer. The proposed coal ban would disrupt its export program that is keeping the Utah coal industry afloat in the face of declining domestic demand for coal as utilities move to natural gas for generating electrical power.

Wolverine moved 3 million tons through the Bay Area to Japan last year and hopes to boost that traffic. Without access to natural gas, Japanese utilities are turning to coal to meet their power needs, opening a vast market for coal mined in the American West.

The West Coast, however, has insufficient export capacity designed for coal. That makes existing facilities like the Levin-Richmond Terminal a crucial link for coal exports.

If it barred coal handling, Richmond would be following the nearby port city of Oakland, which enacted a coal ban in 2016 in an effort to prevent a proposed export terminal from handling Utah coal. Oakland officials were upset that the port developer concealed his ties to Wolverine, which did not come to light until after news media reported the terminal would be financed by four coal-producing counties in Utah.

A federal judge ruled Oakland’s ban violated its agreements with the developer in a decision that is now under appeal.