A Bay Area city that has been a key export gateway for Utah mines has approved a ban on the storage and handling of coal, potentially severing a vital link to the global marketplace for a commodity that is rapidly losing domestic customers.
Council members heard hours of testimony at that earlier hearing and made their vote Tuesday without any discussion. Wolverine’s general counsel did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Public health and environmental advocates applauded Richmond’s adoption of a coal ban, which had been in the works for more than a year and was spurred by residents’ complaints about coal dust allegedly coating homes, yards and streets.
“Richmond communities are already overburdened by pollution from the I-80 and I-580 corridors, the Chevron refinery and other industrial polluters," said Julia Walsh, a professor of health at the nearby University of California in Berkeley. "Cutting out this source of deadly particulate matter in the form of coal dust means fewer trips to the hospital, fewer kids with asthma, and longer life spans for many residents.”
“Today, Richmond communities made a stand for clean air and public health,” said Minda Berbeco, who directs the club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter.
The coal industry and its political allies have argued that moves to block coal exports from West Coast ports have nothing to do with protecting public health and everything to do with keeping U.S. coal in the ground, putting American miners, truckers, rail engineers and others out of work.
“The stakes are high. Adoption of this ordinance threatens jobs and will result in years of litigation," said Levin’s marketing director, Barbara O’Neill. “Furthermore, the City Council’s asserted need for the ordinance — ‘protecting the public from the hazards of fugitive dust emissions from coal and petroleum coke’ — has been shown to be without support.”
She highlighted an evaluation of upwind and downwind air-monitoring data indicating the terminal has not been a source of harmful fugitive dust.
In addition, Wolverine operates the Sufco and Dugout mines, producing a total of about 10 million tons of coal a year. The company’s export program interrupted a decadelong slide in Utah coal production.
For the past few years, Wolverine has shipped coal by rail to Richmond and the inland Port of Stockton on the Sacramento River. The Japan-bound ships, each with a capacity of 66,000 tons, are loaded about two-thirds full at Stockton, then floated downriver to Richmond’s deeper waters, where they are filled to capacity at the Levin terminal.
Taking Richmond out of play could effectively disrupt loading operations at Stockton if Wolverine cannot find another bay-side terminal to top off its ships. Such a scenario elevates the importance of the proposed Oakland terminal, which could handle 10 million tons a year.
JERA Co., which has two new coal-fired power plants under construction and others proposed, is interested in buying 4.4 million tons of coal shipped each year through the Oakland terminal, according to a declaration Insight executive John Siegel filed in the bankruptcy case.
JERA oversees numerous idled nuclear power plants, including the Fukushima Daiichi plant that suffered a direct hit from a 2011 tsunami. Siegel served as executive chairman of Wolverine, then known as Bowie Resource Partners, when it quietly hatched the plan to build the Oakland coal-export terminal with developer Phil Tagami.
According to Siegel’s declaration, JERA’s bank, Sumitomo Mitsui, is in discussions with Insight to finance the full construction costs of the terminal. But all these efforts to push Utah coal overseas through the Bay Area could be moot if the courts side with Oakland and Richmond in the pending and threatened suits over their coal bans.