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After hearing almost four hours of impassioned testimony from all sides of the issue that ran into the wee hours of the morning, the Richmond City Council took no action on a controversial proposed ordinance that would phase out storage of coal and petcoke at a waterfront terminal facility.
After the last speaker addressed the council, Mayor Tom Butt moved to adjourn the meeting, with no council discussion of the ordinance that would phase out coal and petcoke storage at the Levin-Richmond Terminal on the Santa Fe Channel east of Point Richmond and south of the Iron Triangle neighborhood. Levin-Richmond Terminal would have three years to phase out coal and petcoke handling at the waterfront site, which could transition to storing other materials, according to a Richmond city staff report.
Butt said the city charter allows him to do that, and the city attorney concurred. Five of the council members would have had to overrule Butt for the meeting to continue; Butt had two other votes, Nat Bates and Eduardo Martinez, which meant the meeting then adjourned without council deliberation or a vote.
The proposed law, borne of complaints from the public about increased coal dust in the air, would only govern storage of coal in Richmond. It won’t have any effect on transportation of coal through the city by rail.
Many who spoke at the meeting were either some of Levin’s 62 employees who feared they would lose their jobs in a gradual shutdown of the coal terminal or union leaders who advocated for the Levin terminal, which has operated for 37 years.
Levin employee Antoine Cloird exhorted his fellow workers at the meeting to stand — they filled much of the chamber. Levin affords them a good wage and a chance to be a productive part of society.
“Many of us there, we had a past, and now we have a life,” Cloird said. “We buy cars, we buy our houses, we pay our taxes.”
Fellow Levin worker Michael Dilorenzo said his employer gives people like him a fighting chance. “I’m a blue-collar worker … I’m nobody, and I’m everybody,” and a son of immigrants, he added.
“There are a lot of use here tonight, and we vote,” Dilorenzo said.
Many others were either community activists, including members of a group called No Coal in Richmond, health professionals or other residents who told the council that Richmond residents, especially children, have unusually high rates of asthma. A number of them also contended the coal dust pollution from Levin was one form of environmental racism, another example of a polluting industry harming a community where most residents are of color.
Dr. Amanda Millstein, a pediatrician practicing in Richmond, said half of her young patients have asthma. She said the coal dust — which another speaker described as “oily dust” — is helping create “a huge problem in Richmond.”
“I get it — you need jobs,” she said. “But this is about saving our children.”
Several speakers who supported the ordinance to remove coal from Richmond’s waterfront said they regretted the Levin battle had become a referendum on the company; no one had anything bad to say about Levin, and several called it a good neighbor. Some said they themselves were union members.
But for Dr. John Balmes, a professor of environmental studies at UC Berkeley, that wasn’t the issue. “I’m pro-union, but I’m also pro-health.”
Two Levin representatives told the council they would likely face a lawsuit if the ordinance was approved. One of them noted a July 2018 U.S. District Court ruling overturning Oakland’s ban on storing and handling coal. “It’s the same lawsuit,” he said.
It was unclear whether the matter would be taken up again at the council’s next scheduled meeting this month.