January 17, 2017

Dangerous and dirty coal exports threaten Bay Area

cu_coalplantWe don’t mine coal in the Bay Area (any more). We burn very little coal here. Yet efforts to transport coal from the Powder River Basin, Utah, and Colorado for export to the rest of the world could bring coal pollution to our area–in addition to intensifying the impact of coal on worldwide climate disruption. This effort to turn Bay Area ports into shipping points for coal could be compounded by efforts to transport petroleum coke (petcoke) a byproduct of oil refining, especially from the Canadian tar sands.

Even if we don’t burn these fuels here, the toxic and hazardous dust from shipping and transferring them is a threat to Bay Area health.

Big coal companies have so far failed to win approval for new coal export facilities in the Northwest and so are now targeting the Bay Area. Coal would be brought here in open-top rail cars, particles spilling out all along the way and blowing off during unloading and storage. Then–in importing nations–these highly polluting and carbon-intensive fuels would be burnt for electricity, spewing toxics and climate-destructive carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air.

What is petcoke?

Petcoke, a solid similar in appearance to coal, is a byproduct of an oil-refining process called coking. It is over 90% carbon, emitting 5 – 10% more CO2 per unit of energy than coal when burned, and 30 – 80% more CO2 per ton. Burning petcoke results in toxic residues, from heavy metals to sulfur.

Because it is so dirty, the federal Environmental Protection Agency prohibits burning petcoke in the U.S., but defines it as a “traditional fuel” that can be exported to other countries like China rather than disposed of as hazardous waste.

Petcoke comes from refining oil, and heavier and dirtier crudes like those from Canadian tar-sands leave the most petcoke.

There are over 79.8 million tons of petcoke stockpiled in Canada, and such waste is accumulating in the U.S. as more tar-sands oil heads here to be refined.

The low cost of tar-sands oil is attracting California refineries. Bay Area refineries currently producing petcoke include Valero in Benicia, Tesoro in Martinez, Chevron in Richmond, and Phillips 66 in Rodeo. Despite strict emissions laws within the state, California exports 128,000 barrels of petcoke a day, primarily to China.

Petcoke and coal are transported and stored the same way, in open-air containers and piles that allow the commodities to contaminate our air and water.

Export proposals

Numerous companies are at various stages of trying to develop additional export facilities.

  • Port of Oakland. A bulk terminal here could potentially bring 2.5 – 9 million tons of coal though Oakland a year (8 – 30 trains a week). In February the Port rejected two coal and petcoke proposals (see April, page 4), but we need to stay vigilant to ensure that it continues to refuse such uses.
  • Oakland Army Base. Developer Phil Tagami and California Capital Investment Group are well into the permitting stage for a bulk terminal that could potentially be used to ship coal.
  • Port of Richmond. Several companies have proposed coal export facilities at Terminal 3 or 4, which could bring 2 – 6 million tons of coal per year.
  • The Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond currently ships some coal and petcoke. San Francisco Baykeeper is currently suing the terminal over alleged Clean Water Act violations. Last year, the terminal signed an agreement to ship an additional 1.2 million tons of coal per year.
  • The Port of Stockton, as of 2011, was exporting 90,000 tons of coal per year, and recent proposals would expand that to three million tons.
  • The Port of Benicia currently exports petcoke and other petroleum products, and is also capable of shipping coal, although it is unclear whether it plans to do so.
  • The Port of San Francisco has stated that it is opposed to shipping coal, but so far there is no policy in place prohibiting this from happening. The Port is currently in negotiations to build a bulk facility for iron ore, which could be converted to export coal.

Health impacts

Coal dust dirties the air and contaminates crops and drinking water. Tests show that coal dust contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals.

Prolonged direct exposure to coal dust has been linked to chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, emphysema, cancer, and death. Coal dust has also been linked to heart disease in miners. In a community near a large coal terminal in Virginia, the number of residents suffering from asthma was found to be more than twice the city and state average.

Inhaling petcoke can cause serious respiratory problems, particularly for those with heart and lung disease including asthma. Health experts say that petcoke is equivalent to coal in lung-disease risk.

Petcoke’s high-carbon composition makes it one of the most carbon-intensive fuels; exporting the waste to another country does not stop its effects on the global climate.

Community impacts

Many new mile-long open-top coal trains each day are expected if these coal export proposals are approved in Oakland and other communities.

Businesses near export facilities would suffer economic impacts due to noise, coal and petcoke dust, and increased train traffic (blocking vehicular and pedestrian traffic).

All buildings, both homes and businesses, within 600 feet of the rail tracks where coal would be shipped, can be expected to lose at least 1% of their value due to coal transport activities. A study of one new facility found losses of at least $265 million in property values and more than $2.6 million in annual tax revenues.


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