Unions Join Companies to Oppose Richmond Coal Ban

"Jobs vs. environment" argument poses a challenge to proposed measure, but supporters say the familiar dichotomy represents a false choice.

A coalition of residents, health professionals, and environmental groups has campaigned for more than a year for Richmond to ban exports of coal and petroleum coke from the Levin Terminal. They’ve knocked on doors and collected coal and petcoke dust from neighborhoods near the terminal and coal dust near the tracks where it travels in open train cars. Last week before the city council, members of this No Coal in Richmond coalition warned about the serious health damage that they believe such dust poses to a community already overburdened by air pollution.

Julia Walsh, who teaches public health at UC Berkeley, summarized the health harm caused by the small particles of dust that blow off open piles of coal and petcoke sitting on the wharf: increased rates of “heart and lung disease, diabetes, dementia, preterm births, and exceptionally high rates of asthma emergency room visits.” A report she co-authored points out that “The populations at greatest risk of poor health from air pollution are those from socio-economically disadvantaged communities,” like many near the terminal and rail lines.

The opponents of coal encountered predictable opposition from managers and workers at the Levin terminal, who pleaded with the council not to enact a ban that they said would threaten good union jobs and cost the city tax revenue. And they also faced opposition from workers in other building trades unions, members of a new statewide alliance between the Western States Petroleum Association and the California Building Trades Council.

Several of these union members suggested that the anti-coal campaign was anti-worker. “Do not turn your back on blue-collar families,” said Bob Jennings of the Building Trades Council, who has warned that blue-collar jobs are under attack. Other union members held up signs that read “Are our jobs too dirty for you?”

It was the familiar “jobs vs. environment” argument that has hampered environmental action in the past. Its emergence in Richmond highlights another one of the many challenges facing the broad social movement to clean neighborhoods inequitably afflicted by pollution and address the growing climate change crisis.

Many supporters of the proposed coal and petcoke ban rejected the notion that protecting the environment need be accompanied by a loss of good jobs. “We shouldn’t be forced to choose between clean air and money for our schools and families,” said Claudia Jimenez, whose two kids attend Washington School less than a mile from Levin Terminal. “We need to demand that the city and the union show us a just transition plan.”

The most obvious solution would be for the Levin Terminal, which has handled coal only since 2013, to find another commodity to ship. A report from a UC Berkeley economist lists a number of possibilities. But terminal owner Gary Levin said at a Planning Commission hearing last July that he has no economically viable alternative. Because coal is the primary commodity shipped by his company, Levin said, “this ordinance would put the marine terminal out of business.”

Jobs was the main theme of those who want to preserve Levin’s coal-shipping operation. Levin has 62 employees, of whom 48 are members of the Operating Engineers Local 3. Levin workers such as Lauren Calhoun said the terminal is “a great place to work.” Several speakers pointed to the company’s record of 10 years without an injury that has caused lost work time. And Chris Snyder, political director of Operating Engineers Local 3, said Levin is “unique” because it provides “a gateway to other jobs, a place where you can learn how to be a mechanic, drive an engine, operate a crane.”

Antwon Cloird, who doesn’t work at Levin but spoke as a member of the laborers’ union, said in an interview that he was there because “we’re part of the brotherhood of labor unions.” At the July Planning Commission hearing, he warned that if the ordinance passes “everybody who works at that place would lose their jobs and become homeless.”

Speakers in favor of the ordinance vehemently rejected the notion that they were anti-labor, with many noting that they were union members from strong union families that included labor organizers. Community activist and former city council member Ada Recinos assured workers, “I will stand with you to demand that Levin change its business practices and diversify.” Janet Johnson of the Sunflower Alliance said the city should reach out to economists at UC Berkeley for assistance in finding an alternative to coal.

But faced with Levin’s rejection of the viability of an alternative, some union members were skeptical of such assurances. In an earlier interview, Bill Whitney, CEO of the Contra Costa Building Trades Council, said the very notion of a “just transition to green jobs” is wishful thinking. “Maybe five or ten years from now,” he said, but currently it would mean “taking an operating engineer who makes $80,000-90,000 a year with health and welfare and a pension and putting him into a solar job making $15 an hour with no benefits.”

Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance called such dire predictions scare tactics. “It’s Mr. Levin’s ‘coal or bust’ stance that’s threatening workers’ jobs,” she said.

A report prepared for No Coal in Richmond lists a number of alternative bulk commodities that the Levin facility could handle, including sand, gravel, bauxite, slag, gypsum, and scrap metal. UC Berkeley economist Clair Brown, who co-authored the report, told Levin workers, “You don’t have to lose your jobs. There are alternative commodities for export and import.”

No-coal activists suspect employers are promoting fears of job loss as a political strategy to rally union opposition. They point not just to Levin but also to Phillips 66, whose petcoke, a byproduct of petroleum refining, is now shipped from the Levin Terminal. Phillips 66 manager Carl Perkins has repeatedly spoken out against the proposed measure. And coal-ban supporters suspect that Phillips 66 is rallying labor opposition through the petroleum industry’s new alliance with the building trades unions.

Whitney of the Contra Costa council explained in an interview that this alliance is an outgrowth of a recent state law that raised labor standards for oil refineries: requiring them to pay prevailing wages and hire graduates of state-approved apprenticeship programs. Since the law passed, Whitney said, Chevron, Shell, Marathon, and Phillips 66 all have signed statewide Project Labor Agreements with the California Building Trades Council. “We now have a working relationship,” he said. Asked if the building trades council has discussed the Richmond coal issue with Phillips 66, he said, “We talk to P66 about a lot of issues. This has been one of them.”

Supporters of the ban focused on the terminal’s likely impacts on community health and the widespread support for the campaign to phase out coal. Johnson of the Sunflower Alliance handed the city council a shopping bag containing about 2,000 letters supporting the coal ban. “When we knock on doors,” she said, “We talk for about 30 seconds and then it’s ‘Where do I sign? and wait till I get my wife.'”

Former Richmond teacher Susan Wehrle said “My students all came to school with asthma inhalers in their backpacks.” Another speaker gave the council a letter supporting the ordinance signed by every teacher in Washington School. Pediatrician Amanda Millstein, one of several doctors who spoke, said she sees “a high rate of premature birth — their lungs are really suffering. The majority of my patients have asthma. They miss school many times a year because of asthma, and they have lots of emergency room visits.” A high school baseball player said many of his teammates had to quit because their asthma was so bad.

Speakers for the Levin terminal questioned claims that dust from the terminal is harming residents’ health. Levin attorney Chris Locke challenged two studies, one commissioned by Mayor Tom Butt and one by the Sierra Club, saying “you can’t tell coal and petcoke dust from diesel pollution.” But two independent laboratory reports filed with the city described techniques used to analyze dust particles from Richmond neighborhoods and reported identifying coal and petcoke in the samples.

Some speakers proposed that rather than banning coal, the dust could be controlled by capping or enclosing the whole terminal. But at the July Planning Commission meeting, Levin suggested that would not be practical. “I am not aware of any coal-handling facility that has an enclosed building or dome,” he said.

Many opponents of the measure called on the city to delay action until after the conclusion of a lengthy study of Richmond air pollution that’s just getting underway. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is leading the study in response to a state law that calls for strategies to reduce air pollution in communities where it’s most concentrated. But Air District Deputy Air Pollution Officer Greg Nudd, who’s leading the study, said in a letter to the city that the air district shares Richmond’s concerns about “potential impacts from coal dust emissions associated with the Levin Terminal” and that “we need not delay efforts to reduce emissions even as these monitoring studies are underway.”

As the city council meeting wore on, Mayor Butt expressed repeated concern that passing the ordinance would lead to lawsuits. Both Levin and Wolverine Fuels, which owns the coal shipped through the terminal, have promised to sue if the ordinance passes. And that could cost the city millions, Butt warned.

After more than four hours of passionate testimony lasting past midnight, Mayor Butt unexpectedly announced that he was postponing the vote until January 14, in hopes that it would be possible to reach an agreement that avoids a lawsuit.


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