Environmental Groups Join City of Richmond in Legal Fight to Phase Out Polluting Coal Dust from Shipping Terminal

Sierra Club and SF Baykeeper stand with Richmond’s legal defense of public health and safety from coal dust


Mark Westlund, San Francisco Baykeeper, (510) 841-8329

Zoe Woodcraft, Earthjustice, (818) 606-7509

Virginia Reinhart, Sierra Club, (530) 304-9807

Yesterday evening, the Sierra Club and San Francisco Baykeeper moved to intervene as full parties in the lawsuit to defend the City of Richmond’s ordinance that phases out the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke in the city. The environmental legal organization Earthjustice is representing both the Sierra Club and SF Baykeeper in court.

The Levin-Richmond Terminal is the only facility in Richmond handling coal and petcoke. For the past two years, the City Council, community members, and the Levin Terminal have participated in a public process to find ways to reduce coal dust in the city. The ordinance, adopted in February 2020, phases out the handling of coal in the city within three years. The Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, petrochemical company Phillips 66, and coal company Wolverine Fuels filed lawsuits against the City of Richmond in early March.

“We’re intervening because the health and safety of Richmond community members are on the line” said Anna Stimmel, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “Companies like the Levin Terminal and Phillips 66 don’t have the right to pollute in Richmond indefinitely. The city did the right thing when it passed the ordinance phasing out coal handling within city limits to end the scourge of coal dust in Richmond once and for all, and we’re going to court to defend that decision.”

Dust from coal and petcoke handling and storage contains fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and chromium that pose a serious health threat — a danger that has grown even more acute during this coronavirus pandemic. A recent Harvard study showed long term exposure to PM2.5, in particular, increases the COVID-19 death rate. Exposure to PM2.5 and heavy metals is also linked to cardiovascular and respiratory conditions including asthma, pneumonia, emphysema, heart disease, and cancer. There is no safe level of PM2.5 exposure.

“Most people don’t think of the Bay Area as Coal Country, but the industry’s recent attempts to move millions of tons of dirty coal through our cities prove otherwise and put us all at risk,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of SF Baykeeper. “We don’t want toxic coal dust in our Bay or asthma in our communities — instead, we need to fight the dirty fuel industry and support Richmond’s right to clean air and clean water.”

On May 20, the California Attorney General filed a motion to file an amicus brief in support of Richmond’s ordinance, urging that the city’s ordinance be upheld.

The Richmond Community Takes A Stand

The legal fight comes on the heels of a major community effort within Richmond to address the coal dust that has afflicted residents at home, at work, and at school for years. Increases in coal handling at the Levin terminal prompted Richmond’s City Council to take action after thousands of local residents, including teachers and nurses, wrote complaints to the city about the scourge of coal dust.

Upon reaching the waterfront terminal — less than a mile away from residential neighborhoods — coal and petcoke are heaped in massive open air piles and loaded onto ships. Bay breezes then carry the toxic coal dust into surrounding communities and the Bay.

Richmond City Council Member Eduardo Martinez speaks at an event against coal dust in the community.
Photo courtesy of Sierra Club, SF Bay Chapter

“Coal and petcoke dust can travel for miles, and Richmond residents have reported finding the dust on their cars and inside their homes. Teachers at a K-12 school within a mile away need to carry inhalers because so many of their students are struggling to breathe,” said Jacob Gran, a Richmond High School teacher and United Teachers of Richmond member. “The pollution from coal and petcoke contains fine particulate matter that causes serious heart and respiratory diseases — and now we know that means increased mortality rates from COVID-19 too. We won’t sit back and let major fossil fuel corporations keep us from building a cleaner and more vibrant community and economy. The City of Richmond did the right thing.”

Local pediatrician Dr. Amanda Millstein attends a public meeting with her daughter in Richmond to urge the city to take action on coal dust from the Levin Terminal.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Millstein

“I take care of babies, toddlers, children, and teenagers who live and go to school in Richmond every day. Exposure to coal dust is known to be a major trigger of asthma. My patients suffer from asthma rates up to double the national average, requiring trips to the Emergency Department and high doses of medications,” said Dr. Amanda Millstein, a Richmond pediatrician. “It is not every day that a city council has an opportunity to pass legislation that will save children’s lives. The City of Richmond was absolutely right to put the health of children and families first.”

The environmental groups filed as full parties with the City of Richmond just as the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that renewable energy has surpassed coal in energy consumption in the United States for the first time in 130 years.

Read the motions to intervene in the lawsuits filed by the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, petrochemical company Phillips 66, and coal company Wolverine Fuels against the City of Richmond.

Open air coal handling at the Levin Terminal in Richmond, California less than a mile away from residential neighborhoods
(Courtesy of Google Maps)
Open air coal handling at the Levin Terminal in Richmond, California less than a mile away from residential neighborhoods (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.