RICHMOND — Nearly two months after the City Council approved an ordinance that bans the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke in Richmond, multiple companies that handle and export those products have sued the city in federal and state courts.
The ordinance phases out coal and coke operations within three years.
Three companies — the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corp., which manages the only coal-handling facility in the city, coal export firm Wolverine Fuels and Phillips 66, which manufactures petroleum coke and exports it through the Levin Terminal — allege the ban violates their constitutional rights.
Coal and petroleum coke shipments make up more than 80 percent of Levin-Richmond Terminal’s business, according to executives at the company. The coal is mostly shipped to Japan and petroleum coke to other countries for use in manufacturing.
While city documents about the ordinance acknowledge Richmond cannot regulate the transport of coal or petroleum coke, banning the storage and handling of coal and petcoke at the Levin Terminal effectively forces out the coal trains.
Because of that, Levin’s lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, calls the ordinance “an improper exercise of police powers” and contends it “violates Constitutional protections and unduly burdens interstate and foreign commerce, is preempted by federal law, violates Constitutional protections against taking of property and business interests, impairs Levin’s Constitutional rights to due process, equal protection and contractual relations, and is arbitrary, capricious and unlawful.”
Federal lawsuits by Wolverine Fuels and Phillips 66 make similar arguments. The companies also allege the city has not shown sufficient evidence to support its claims that the handling of coal and petcoke is bad for residents’ health.
When coal is put in open-air piles, its dust containing poisons such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, vanadium and chromium is swept around San Francisco Bay, according to environmental advocates with the Sierra Club. The toxins can cause cancer, birth defects and neurological harm, and microscopic particles can inflame lungs and find their way into blood to cause heart and lung disease, diabetes, low birth weight and other illnesses, Sierra Club documents say.
Phillips 66, Wolverine and Levin point to the results of an air monitoring test done over the summer by Sonoma Technologies that suggest their activities don’t harm the community. The Phillips 66 lawsuit says there is “no scientific basis for concluding that fugitive dust from the storage and handling of petcoke at the Terminal posed any health risks or environmental impacts.”
But an evaluation from researchers at UC Berkeley and Belvedere Environmentals posted by advocates of the coal ban disagree.
The particle levels in downtown Richmond are “are definitively associated with increases in: premature death (life expectancy of residents is 7 years shorter than residents of the hills), ischemic heart disease, asthma attacks (incidence in one downtown census tract is higher than 99% of all California census tracts), lung disease (cancer, pneumonia, and bronchitis), dementia, stroke, preterm births, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome,” the researchers wrote in a Nov. 2019 assessment.
The lawsuits against the city are not a surprise. Levin-Richmond Terminal Corp. president Gary Levin warned the council in a July letter that adopting the ban could lead to closure of the terminal and the loss of 62 jobs, and that the company might sue. Wolverine Fuels, which exports thermal coal to Japan using the terminal, also threatened to sue in a letter to the council.
In addition to the three federal suits filed by each company against the city, at least two more petitions — from Levin and Phillips 66 — appear in state court records in Contra Costa County.
Calls to the acting Richmond city attorney were not returned, but Richmond Mayor Tom Butt has expressed concern over the potential costs of fighting the lawsuits, which he expects to top $1 million.
Butt said he was expecting help in fighting the lawsuits from the Sierra Club, which lobbied for the coal ban and helped draft the ordinance. But the Sierra Club maintains it never promised to indemnify the city or pay the legal costs.
“I voted for it, I supported it. They were all over Richmond — lobbying city council members. They started this whole ‘no coal in Richmond’ movement. They drafted the ordinance, assured everyone it was no problem — ‘they may sue us but we’ll win’ — but we’re looking at spending over a million to defend this,” Butt said. “Richmond is not a rich community. We struggle with our budget. I kind of resent the fact they put us out front on this.”
A video of a December council meeting shows Sierra Club’s Aaron Isherwood and Butt discussing potential litigation over the lawsuit. While Isherwood said he can’t promise to cover legal costs — “the city will have to hire its own attorneys” — he added “we will hire attorneys to help defend.” He also said the Sierra Club has “already expended considerable resources” to help the city on the coal ordinance.
Butt said Thursday, “The message was murky, but I took it to mean that they’ll be there for us.”
“In Oakland after the City Council passed its coal ordinance, Sierra Club has been there every step of the way as intervenors,” Isherwood said in a written statement. “When Mayor Butt first approached us to ask about the Sierra Club funding the City of Richmond’s legal costs, we made it clear that we don’t have those kinds of resources to offer, but that we would back the City up in court as intervenors. We will do so, and we remain committed to supporting Richmond and this community in their fight to protect families from the impacts of coal dust.”
Complaints Over Latest Flaring Event At Chevron Richmond Refinery
March 18, 2019 at 1:26 pm
RICHMOND (CBS SF) – Four members of the public filed complaints with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over flaring observed at the Chevron Richmond Refinery over the weekend.
The air district sent inspectors to the scene Sunday, and they are continuing to investigate the flaring, which Chevron said was caused by an upset in a process unit.
District spokeswoman Kristine Roselius said that so far, no notices of violation have been issued with regard to the incident, but detailed information about what chemicals were released into the air and why may not be available for months.
Roselius referred to flares as a safety device, burning very hot to protect public health by pushing the emissions high into the atmosphere to minimize their effect on nearby communities.
In a statement issued Sunday by Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall, the oil giant reassured neighbors that there was no environmental or health risk, and that flares are used to “relieve pressure during the refining processes.”
Repost from KQED News [Editor: Southwest winds bring the Richmond refinery’s pollution right over Benicia. – R.S.]
Chevron’s Richmond Refinery Flaring Incidents at Highest Level in More Than a Decade
By Ted Goldberg, Mar 18, 2019
The number of flaring incidents in 2018 at Chevron’s Richmond refinery was at its highest level in 12 years, according to data the Bay Area Air Quality Management District released Monday at a board of directors committee meeting.
The refinery experienced nine flaring events last year, more than any other refinery in the Bay Area. That’s the highest number of such incidents since 2006, when the Chevron refinery experienced 21 flaring events.
The Tesoro refinery in Pacheco experienced five flaring incidents last year, Valero’s Benicia refinery conducted four, Shell in Martinez had three and Phillips 66 in Rodeo had two, according to the air district.
The jump, which started in the last eight months, is connected to the start up of a new hydrogen plant that recently began operating at the facility, according to John Gioia, who represents the area of the refinery on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and sits on the air district’s board of directors.
“All the sudden we saw this spike,” Gioia said in an interview. “There are some issues related to the new hydrogen plant and how it is integrated with the existing refinery.”
Gioia said it will probably take several months for Chevron to make fixes at the plant to reduce future flaring operations.
“For those of us who live in Richmond, we may continue to see some additional flaring while these issues are resolved,” he said.
Air regulators and oil industry officials emphasize that flares are used as safety devices to reduce pressure inside refineries by burning off gases during facility malfunctions as well as start up and shutdown operations.
Braden Reddall, a company spokesman, said late Monday that the refinery was flaring “due to startup activities at a processing unit.”
“The flaring does not pose any environmental or health risk to the community,” Reddall said in an email.
“We want to assure our neighbors that flares are highly regulated safety devices, designed to relieve pressure during the refining processes and help keep our equipment and plants operating safety,” he said, adding that the refinery continues to supply its customers.
But Reddall did not answer questions about the connection between the hydrogen plant and the refinery’s recent uptick in flaring incidents as well as what kind of fixes the company is putting in place.
Gioia said the refinery began using the hydrogen unit last fall.
In the first three months of 2019, there have been five malfunctions at Chevron, the most recent one on Sunday afternoon, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.
That incident sent black smoke into the air and lasted two-and-a-half hours, Sawyer said.
It came 11 days after the refinery suffered an outage that caused several processing units at the facility to shut down, prompting the facility to send gas through its flares.
The refinery also suffered outages on Feb. 2 and Jan. 17 and conducted a separate flaring operation on Feb. 24.
The air district is investigating most of those incidents, according to agency spokeswoman Kristine Roselius.
“We don’t think this is an acceptable situation,” said Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer of the air district, during Monday’s meeting before the district’s Stationary Source Committee.
Gioia said a significant portion of the gas coming from the refinery’s flares during the recent incidents has been pure hydrogen, which does not present the same health risk as other gases like sulfur dioxide and benzene, which tend to get released during other flaring operations.