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Coal-dust study confirms toxic pollution

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During the years-long battles concerning coal and petcoke shipments going through the Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond, as well as the proposal to build a terminal shipping coal in Oakland, opponents of any regulation have repeatedly used the argument that there is no substantial proof coal and petcoke dust are present in Richmond. Or, in the case of the Oakland terminal project, that such dust would present health and environmental risks to West Oakland residents.

Now there is.

A study conducted by two UC Davis scientists, along with a local physician, “Assessment of Coal and Petroleum Coke Pollution,” was released in April 2023. From the study’s 81-page report: “Coal and petcoke were definitively identified at the [Richmond] terminal and in residential [Richmond] neighborhoods.” The study was paid for by a grant from the California Air Resources Board.

There has never been any question that tiny particles present in coal and petcoke dust, called PM 2.5, can cause a raft of health issues if breathed in, including serious respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Coal and petcoke also contain heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and sulfur, as does their dust. But are these particles present in the air, water and soil of Richmond, and would they be present if trains are allowed to transport huge amounts of coal through Oakland?

The study used three independent methods to monitor and sample during periods extending between October 2019 and October 2022. It measured “coal-related PM 2.5 associated with: 1) rail conveyance of coal through Richmond; 2) coal train car storage at the holding yard; 3) coal and petcoke storage and handling activities at the Levin Terminal; and 4) exposure in nearby communities.

The results: “Both coarse and fine coal particles were identified using separate independent laboratories and methods. These corroborative findings signal high confidence in the results. It is therefore reasonable to expect subsequent health effects due to coal and petcoke from terminal operations.”

A 2018 analysis of soil samples provided by southwest Richmond residents and conducted by an analytical laboratory in Illinois with expertise in identifying particulate matter, including coal, confirmed the presence of coal dust. But the small number of samples submitted was used to discredit it.

That’s why, said Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter Organizer Jacob Klein, “[This] study is very exciting. It shows the evidence for what we knew all along.” Sierra Club and Earthjustice lawyers were key in efforts to stop coal and petcoke shipments at the Levin-Richmond Terminal, resulting in a 2021 settlement ceasing shipments in 2026. They were also at the forefront of the case attempting to stop the proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal.

In 2016, the Oakland City Council banned the shipment and storage of coal and petcoke. Developer Phil Tagami and his associates sued. In May 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that the city had failed to prove “substantial evidence” that planned coal shipments through the proposed terminal “would pose a substantial health or safety danger.” 

Extant studies showing the existence and impact of coal dust used a different type of coal than that which would be shipped from Utah mines. They were conducted in other states, under different conditions, it was asserted. But although the judgement was against the city, the door was left open, said Ann Harvey, No Coal in Oakland member and retired family physician, for the city to return to court with more evidence.

Pure science and AI

The local study was conducted by Bart Ostro, Ph.D., Air Quality Research Center, University of California, Davis; Nicholas Spada, Ph.D., Air Quality Research Center, University of California, Davis; and Heather Kuiper, Doctor of Public Health, an independent consultant. In phone interviews, all three emphasized the study’s agenda was “scientific and not political.”

“We are not strongly aligned with the community groups,” Ostro said. Spada, recruited by Ostro for assistance in the study, said: “[Ostro] made it clear I would not be looking for a specific outcome, and that honesty and transparency were inherent in the work.” In other words, they would report exactly what they found.

Both Ostro, the former chief of the California EPA’s Air Pollution and Epidemiology Unit, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and Kuiper, wanted to clearly ascertain if coal and petcoke shipments were, in the case of Richmond, and would be, in the case of Oakland, negatively affecting community health. If PM 2.5 particles from those sources were found, “they are known to cause a cascade of health effects,” Kuiper said. The World Health Organization has declared that there is no safe level of exposure to the particles. 

Yet no extensive studies existed. One major factor, Ostro said, was that reliance on visual observation and tracking of coal and petcoke trains is unpredictable, therefore unreliable and “not sufficient.”

He approached Spada, who, as both scientist and environmental engineer with a UC Davis group that performs air monitoring, quickly determined that “off-the-shelf” monitoring systems—such as PurpleAir—would be inadequate. 

Using the CARB grant, Spada and his students developed an entirely new system. This incorporated AI to review thousands of photos of train cars, identifying which carried coal and petcoke, and which were returning empty, including using infrared cameras to capture night shipments. Sensors measured the amounts of dust produced by the cars both coming and going, and accounted for the speed and direction of the wind in distributing it. 

The sensors were located on private properties whose owners volunteered for the study, and the combined technology provided the accurate data needed. Dust was collected and analyzed in labs, as cited above, using electron microscopy.

The system, Spada said, took 18 months to develop; but students could then use a “video game-like” feature to evaluate results in minutes, rather than days.

The study’s results were conclusive. That meant that Richmond residents, especially those in closest proximity to the coal and petcoke shipments, were and are being continually exposed to toxic particles, and that it could be reasonably extrapolated that West Oakland residents would face the same exposure if coal and petcoke were shipped through OBOT.

From the study’s report: “This review links chronic and acute exposure to fine and coarse particulate matter with adverse health outcomes. It also indicates that the environmental justice communities in Richmond and Oakland are likely to experience heightened adverse health effects due to proximity to coal export infrastructure and activity and due to higher underlying health conditions and social determinants.

“As the Alameda County Public Health Department found, ‘Any additional sources of air pollution will have a significantly greater impact in an area already disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of air pollution and with high rates of emergency room visits and hospitalization for asthma and cancer risk from existing pollution.’”

For the entities fighting coal and petcoke shipments, this is pivotal. No Coal in Richmond lead organizer Janet Johnson said that the information will definitely be used to see if mitigation measures agreed upon in the 2021 settlement are being put in place. The Sierra Club’s Klein said both their organization and BayKeeper are closely following the City of Richmond’s enforcement of mitigation.

There are broader implications. The technology created for the study could be a global game-changer. “This is critical new technology to find evidence pointing toward the ways coal is stored and handled,” Klein said. It is already being employed to measure dust being produced by a Baltimore coal terminal, and may be used to measure refinery emissions in Vallejo. Spada noted it has uses in measuring particulates emanating from marine terminals and drydocks worldwide.

The AI-based technology “is a tool” freeing humans to do data analysis, Spada said. By using it, Kuiper said, the actual sources of specific types of pollution can be identified—and the producers of that pollution held accountable. An email request for comment to the McConnell Group—lobbyists for Vikas Tandon, a financier with JMB Capital Partners who has taken over plans for the OBOT—did not receive a response.

Will it be needed in Oakland’s decision?

The City of Oakland and the developers of the proposed OBOT are back in court—but not arguing about science. The developers are contesting the City’s right to have revoked the terminal’s 2016 lease. Two pre-trial hearings have established there will be a bench trial, presided over and decided by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Noël Wise, and that the trial will be limited to issues the judge needs to decide.

The trial began July 10 and is expected to last several weeks. According to the NCIO website blog, if the judgement is in favor of the City, that “victory would end the threat of a coal terminal in Oakland.”

But, Harvey said, if the City loses, “We are back at the end of the federal lawsuit.” The federal court, she emphasized, did not throw out the ban on storage and shipping of coal and petcoke. “It said the City didn’t have adequate scientific evidence of substantial risk to health to allow it to apply the ban to OBOT. So, we would be asking for a re-do.”

Initially, the City would amass more evidence, showing substantial risk of substantial harm, “and again passing a regulation applying the ban on storage and handling of coal and petcoke to OBOT,” she said.

And that is when the study would play a crucial role in Oakland’s coal battle. The study has also been submitted to the Bay Area Air Quality and Management District. Beyond that, the study’s findings and technology have major implications in the fight for environmental justice.



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