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June 04, 2015

Sierra & Tierra: Richmond, CA: Exhibit A of Polluters’ Cruelty

By Javier Sierra

All too often, irony knows no shame, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take Richmond, California, a mostly Latino and African-American low-income community that is subject to one of the country’s most intense fossil fuel pollution bombardments.

The toxic siege is relentless. Richmond —40 percent Latino and 5 percent white— is not only surrounded by petrochemical facilities, but also millions of tons of coal and petcoke —a refinery waste product— are exported from its port.

“They park the coal trains right next to the Richmond Amtrak station,” says Andrés Soto, an activist with Communities for a Better Environment. “Then they off-load the cars at the Levin-Richmond terminal, where huge piles of coal and petcoke accumulate to be exported to China and other countries.”

Petcoke 5
The Port of Richmond with the coal and petcoke stockpiles in the background (Photo: Sierra Club

Studies show that each car, from origin to destination, loses up to one ton of coal dust, a toxic agent containing poisons such as arsenic, lead, chromium and other heavy metals. This noxious cocktail can cause bronchitis, emphysema, cancer and even premature death.

On their way to the port terminal, coal trains pass by four overwhelmingly Latino and African-American elementary schools. And the name of one of them reminds us that irony, indeed, has no shame.

“It’s called Verde [green] Elementary School, which is 80 percent Latino. The dust from those trains lands on the playgrounds of these schools,” says Soto.

The coal and the petcoke are just an insult that keeps pouring on Richmond’s injury.

“Here, low-income communities, because of the high concentration of refineries, already suffer high rates of asthma, cancers and other auto-immune diseases,” says Soto. “And this has been going on for decades. With the coal trains and the petcoke stockpiles we can only expect for this situation to worsen.”

Petcoke is an extremely toxic refinery residue with a great content of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is exported mainly to Asia. One ton of petcoke generates 50 percent more CO2 than coal, and its great heavy metal and sulfur content makes it a dangerous threat to public health.

And one wonders what else the fossil fuel industry has in store to continue mortifying the residents of Richmond. Incredibly, it turns out this city is also the recipient of so-called rolling bombs, mile-long crude oil trains that have caused death and devastation in several parts of North America.

Big Coal’s focus on Richmond, however, betrays a desperate attempt by an industry in nose-diving decline to export a product that is being rejected here in the US. The coal recession is such that several of its main companies have either declared bankruptcy or are on the verge of failing.

And this decline is a worldwide phenomenon. In 2013, for the first time ever, more renewable energy than fossil fuel capacity was installed on the planet, and according to Bloomberg News, this pattern is irreversible, sending dirty energy on the same path as the dinosaurs it came from.

In the meantime, however, Richmond continues paying the consequences of a cruel industry that is oblivious to both economic and climate realities, and obsessed with the next quarter’s earnings.

“It’s unfortunate that these executives don’t love their children and their grandchildren the same way our community love their children and grandchildren,” says Soto. “Because if they did, they would not engage in this type of behavior that is destroying the planet that we all have to live on.”

And that includes the immediate wellbeing and health of Latino communities across the country, such as Richmond.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

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