This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Union Pacific freight cars bearing Utah coal occasionally rumble through Richmond, Calif., on their way to a port on the San Francisco Bay.
The coal is bound for Asia and Mexico, but before these trains arrive at the Levin-Richmond terminal, they deposit a fine layer of black dust on Richmond streets, according to Mayor Tom Butt.
His office fields frequent complaints from residents, tired of the smell and grime associated with the hydrocarbon powder mined hundreds of miles away under Utah's Wasatch Plateau, where Bowie Resource Partners operates three of the state's largest coal mines.
The terminal operator employs street sweepers to remove the dust from Richmond's "nooks and crannies," but the city would like greater latitude to regulate coal shipments to minimize the dust, Butt told a California legislative panel last week. That state's Senate is considering bills introduced in response to plans by four Utah counties to ship Bowie coal through a terminal proposed for the former Oakland Army Base.
"We are stymied from regulating this locally because of federal pre-emption. There are few state statutes and regulations that deal with this issue [of coal transport]. It is ripe for the state to take some responsibility," Butt said.
California state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, has proposed a package of bills aimed at coal shipments, arguing they are a menace to health and safety. The proposed terminal could release up to 646 tons of coal dust a year in West Oakland, said Hancock, who represents a 1 million-resident swath of the politically liberal East Bay.
Butt was among three East Bay mayors who spoke before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, urging support of Hancock's SB1277, which would impose extra regulatory scrutiny of the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal in light of Utah's intent to invest $50 million in the project in exchange for nearly half the terminal's 9 million-metric-ton loading capacity.
Richmond, an industrial city of 108,000 a few miles north of Oakland, was joined in opposition by the Oakland Unified School District, labor representatives, environmentalists and public health advocates. They argued coal shipments would contaminate their communities and undermine wider California policy goals of eliminating coal's use in power generation.
But Oakland city is now under threat of litigation from the port developers, who say they have a contractual entitlement to move whatever legal commodity that makes economic sense.
And Utah leaders are accusing Bay Area communities of violating the Constitution's Commerce Clause by trying to dictate what commodities may pass through.
Carbon County Commission Chairman Jae Potter says anti-coal claims are greatly exaggerated.
"Coal is already regulated by EPA standards and Surface Transportation [Board]," said Potter, whose county has the biggest piece of the Utah investment. "As long as it's handled according to these standards and it's taken care of, there isn't an issue."
After a spirited debate last week, a Senate panel largely agreed with Hancock's argument, advancing in a 7-3 vote her SB1277, which would require a supplemental review to examine potential coal-handling operations at the terminal. The bills cleared a review by an environmental quality panel this week and are to be heard next by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Cloud of uncertainty
The proposed export terminal was reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 2012, three years before news broke that Utah hoped to export coal through Oakland. Critics of SB1277, mostly construction trade groups and railroads, say it would set a dangerous precedent of legislative interference in state regulation.
Cassie Gilson, representing the California Building Industry Association, argued the bill would encourage those unhappy with future CEQA outcomes to ask lawmakers to reopen reviews.
"This bill is not necessary, because anyone can go to the lead agency, Oakland in this case, and ask for a supplemental review," she said.
Railroad representatives complained Hancock's bills would interfere with international commerce.
"Our mission is to get to people all over the world what they need when they need it. It would have national and international impacts because it would impact our ability to move commerce. There should be high threshold for interrupting commerce," said Don Mattie of BNSF Railway.
This port is under development on city-owned property using money ponied up by California taxpayers.
For the $250 million terminal to be viable, port developers must have the latitude to explore any type of lawful commodity, said David Smith, a lawyer representing the port's master developer, Phil Tagami.
Plans for the port have not changed from what was approved in 2012, Smith said, and the recent attention "imposes a potential fatal cloud of uncertainty" over the project.
He added that project offers numerous environmental upsides by enhancing the efficiency of exporting Western commodities through state-of-the-art enclosed facilities, while creating 2,000 jobs. The project's rail nexus would eliminate 112,000 trucks trips a year.
Terminal proponents have pledged that only covered rail cars would be used to transport the coal and that the on-site storage, conveyors and loading areas would be enclosed.
However, such sealed coal-handling facilities do not currently exist because of safety concerns, critics have said; airborne coal dust is liable to combust in unventilated spaces.
Under Tagami's contract to redevelop the former Oakland Army Base, Oakland may impose new rules if the project imperils "health and safety." The city convened hearings last September exploring potential impacts of the terminal handling coal, but officials have yet to craft any ordinance or regulations.
In a joint letter Thursday, the mayors of five neighboring cities implored Oakland officials to exclude coal.
"Coal was not considered in the environmental review of the project when it was approved, and if you don't stop what would be the largest coal terminal on the West Coast of the United States, the health and safety impacts could be severe, not just for Oakland but also for communities and for the world," states the letter, which was signed by an additional six East Bay mayors.
"Our communities would be exposed not only to coal dust and increased diesel emissions, but also to increased risk of collisions and derailments from coal trains."
Testifying at last week's hearing, numerous supporters of Hancock's bill said they support the terminal project, but the prospect of coal is unacceptable.
SB1277 "sends a message to other cities to consider the impacts of coal and other unclean commodities," said Derrick Muhammad, a labor leader representing the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"For a worker who would be handling coal every day, the proposal to bring coal in to Oakland is a drastic and unhealthy situation," he said. "Coal export poses substantial dangers to workers at the site, and the coal dust that would be produced also poses a serious danger to workers."
Last May, the Richmond City Council passed a resolution opposing the mining, transport and export of coal, as well as "the use of existing rail lines and roadways to transport coal and petcoke along California waterways, through densely populated areas and through the City of Richmond."
Bowie Resource Partners did not mention this local opposition a few weeks later when it released a prospectus to potential investors boasting of its contracts with private ports to move up to 5.7 million tons of coal a year through California.
Claims of coal cars shedding huge quantities of dust are supported by the railroads themselves.
One report by BNSF Railway concluded up to 30 tons of coal dust can be released in transit from a 125-car unit trail. Even if a dust-reducing agent is applied, up to 12 tons of coal dust is released during the course of an 800-mile trip, according to a 2014 memo from the Port of Oakland, which later rejected Bowie's proposal that year to develop a coal terminal.
Potter scoffed at such claims.
"If that were the case, wouldn't you see a lot of coal along the railways wherever it's transported? That kind of loss I just don't see on our side," said Potter, pointing to the coal loadouts in Carbon County. "You can go out there on a windy day and there is nothing blowing around."