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Following Oakland’s failed ban on coal transport, Richmond officials will consider their own

on March 22, 2019

The Richmond City Council will soon consider an ordinance that would restrict the handling of coal and petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining, on port terminals in Richmond. A draft of the ordinance, introduced in December, has been approved by the city attorney, and it is expected to go to the council for a vote, although according to that office, a date has not been set yet. 

The ordinance, authored by Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, calls for “the prohibition on the storage and handling of coal or petcoke” in the city and a phasing out of currently allowed storage and handling within five years. If passed, it would largely affect the Levin-Richmond Port, a terminal that began exporting coal in 2013 and has exported petcoke for decades.

Requests for comment were not returned by representatives for the terminal.

Tim McMahan, a representative for Union Pacific, which operates the tracks that lead to the terminal, referred coal-related questions to the terminal’s owners, but stated that the company is legally required to accommodate its transport. “Union Pacific is a common carrier,” he wrote in an email. “As such, federal law requires Union Pacific to provide rail transportation service to customers who request coal shipments.  We transport all materials in accordance with federal law, industry standards, and other operating rules to safely and efficiently move freight.”

A coalition called No Coal in Richmond (NCIR) has lobbied for the ordinance. The coalition includes environmental organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club, a group that was also involved in a similar anti-coal movement in Oakland.

Janet Johnson has lived in Richmond for 37 years and is active in the local group. “Burning coal in the United States is on the wane,” she said. “Despite the efforts of the Trump administration to revive the coal industry, this is not happening.”

Johnson has joined the canvassing efforts to ask Richmond residents to sign a letter in support of the ordinance. “Richmond residents along the rail line and near the terminal see this dust outside on our cars and window sills,” reads the letter, listed on the NCIR website. “What we don’t see is the coal dust entering our lungs. It’s in the air we breathe in our homes and where we work and play.”

It’s not a hard sell convincing neighbors to sign that letter, according to Johnson. “There’s some neighborhoods where people are really aware. They see the trains,” she said.

Train travels through Richmond. This train was not carrying coal at the time of this photo, and it was not confirmed if this specific train carries coal at all.
A train travels through Richmond. This train was not carrying coal at the time this photo was taken, and it was not confirmed if this specific train carries coal at all. Photo by Stephanie Penn.

Coal is transported in open-top containers due its combustible nature, allowing dust from the coal to become airborne and inhaled or to land on nearby surfaces. It’s common to find coal dust across some Richmond neighborhoods, Johnson said, where rail lines sometimes run only a few hundred feet away from homes.

Coal dust is considered particulate matter—small particles in the air that can enter the bloodstream if inhaled. And NCIR members are concerned about the potential health risks associated with exposure to that dust. According to the Sierra Club, it could be carcinogenic, lead to asthma, or damage the circulatory system.

But, according to Dr. Ori Tzvieli, deputy health officer for Contra Costa County, “the health effects of exposure to coal dust depends on how long and how much.” He said that research on the effects of coal dust exposure for people living near train tracks is limited. Current studies are mainly about people who experience extensive long-term exposure, such as miners who come in contact with coal much more frequently and eventually develop black lung.

One of the few studies related to train transport, a 2015 study in Washington state, found that the amount of particulate matter from coal dust that was left in the air after passing by the Columbia River Gorge relied on wind direction and speed.  

Tzvieli listed a few of the potential health effects associated with coal dust exposure: asthma, allergies, cough, wheezing and hypertension. Asthma is already common in Richmond, particularly among the African American population. In a 2014 map provided by Tzvieli, Richmond leads all other cities in Contra Costa County with the highest number of asthma-related emergency department visits.

But he warned, it can’t be tied to a single specific factor like coal dust. “That sort of stuff is tough to tease out between the refineries and other factors,” he said.

Image provided by Dr. Ori Tzvieli, deputy health officer for Contra Costa County.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt agrees that the issue is not simple.

“Look, I believe that we shouldn’t be burning coal at all anywhere,” he said. “And to the extent that Richmond is a participant in burning coal, I’m certainly not in favor of that.”

But he warns that any legislative action must be backed by scientific research on the potential adverse effects of coal dust exposure.

He offers Oakland as a cautionary tale. In 2016, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning the handling and storage of coal within city limits. But the ordinance was not without controversy. It was passed after developer Phil Tagami, of the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal company, who had been working to build and establish an export terminal in Oakland for years, explicitly promised city officials and community members via a 2013 newsletter that he would not pursue coal as an export product.

But, according to The East Bay Express, Tagami then began working with Terminal Logistics Solutions, a company formed in late 2014 that facilitated a $53 million loan from various Utah counties. The loan was intended to help build a terminal in Oakland that would ship out coal from Utah. After a Utah newspaper published a story about this plan, Oakland residents and environmental groups took action by canvassing for petition signatures to urge the city council to ban coal, speaking by the hundreds at city council meetings, and organizing “teach-ins” to inform local residents of the potential health effects of coal dust.

The council eventually passed the 2016 ordinance to ban the plan from moving forward—and Tagami’s company, of the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal company, sued them for it. A federal judge overturned the ban last year, citing a lack of adequate scientific evidence about the potential health effects of coal.

Butt doesn’t want Richmond to become involved in similar legal problems. “I’m a little concerned if we’re too hasty,” he said. “We might just get involved in litigation lose.”

Zoning can be used to “phase out a use that’s considered to be a nuisance or unhealthy,” said Butt, and it might help avoid the litigation Oakland has had to deal with regarding coal shipping.

Martinez’s proposed ordinance relies on zoning restrictions, but that would take years to implement, because zoning incorporates a phasing-out process. “I think what people have to be aware of is even if this goes forward, this is not instant relief,” warned Butt. “The cessation of coal operations in Richmond is years away.”

Additionally, rail lines are controlled by the federal government, and Richmond city officials cannot restrict what travels on them, according to Martinez. “But we do have control over what happens after the items on the train leave the train and cross city property to wherever it is going to go,” he added.

Martinez believes the ordinance will be approved with strong support from the entire council. “I believe our city council is ecologically conscious to the issues and the transport of coal,” he said in a recent interview.

Butt, for now, said he does not know how he would vote on this ordinance once it’s presented to the council.

After an initial vote, the language of the ordinance will be reviewed once more before implementation. The council would then need to reach an agreement with the Levin-Richmond Port on a timeline that would allow for the terminal operators to honor existing contracts, but ultimately seize shipments of coal within five years.

The proposed ordinance would not have an economic effect on the city, according to Martinez. The owners of the Levin-Richmond terminal would continue to pay sales and property taxes to the city and could continue operating by shipping other materials.

“There’s a lot of different items that they could be transporting,” he said. “It’s really a matter of them making the conscious decision.”

Text by Betty Marquez Rosales; photography by Stephanie Penn.


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