Long Beach City Council to review the Port's decision to Export Coal


UPDATE: The Long Beach City Council unfortunately denied our appeal, allowing the Port to lock in 15 more years of coal exports without doing any environmental review. We are extremely disappointed and are figuring out our next steps.  

On a positive note, the hearing was packed by over a hundred passionate community members, many giving eloquent and inspiring testimony. The fight over coal in Long Beach is not over.

Tomorrow evening, the Long Beach City Council could decide whether the Port violated state law when it entered into two agreements to export coal earlier this summer.

As I blogged about recently here and here, the Port of Long Beach has been exporting coal for decades and this June entered into two new agreements to lock in and expand this dirty operation. As part of this decision, the Port claimed it was exempt from having to comply with one of California’s most important environmental laws—the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)—which requires that agencies across the state (such as the Port) analyze whether its decisions may significantly impact the environment. 

Needless to say, community groups and environmental organizations disagreed with the claim that the “Green Port” was exempt from the environmental review. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and Communities for a Better Environment appealed the Port’s decision to the City Council, which will hear the appeal tomorrow—Tuesday, August 19—at 5 p.m.

The question before the City Council is very simple: Did the Port violate CEQA when it entered into the two agreements without doing any analysis of the potential environmental impacts? 

Indeed, the potential environmental impacts of exporting coal are no laughing matter. Just last month, the AP released a story about how the United States’ export of coal may undermine our efforts to reduce our own global warming pollution. The story reported that “as the country has cut its own coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad.” 

There is no doubt that as the U.S. has implemented policies to phase out coal as part of our effort to reduce our contribution to global warming, the coal industry has shifted its strategy to exporting its dirty product abroad.

Just how much the export of coal from the Port of Long Beach contributes to this problem is an important question that the Port should have analyzed in a CEQA study.

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And here at home, there are major questions about how the coal dust and pieces of coal coming off of the trains impact communities all along the rail routes. Even the BNSF Railway Co. has complained that 500 to 2,000 lbs. of coal is often lost in the form of dust from each rail car, because the cars carrying the coal from the mines to the Port are not covered. The cars are essentially Tupperware containers without a lid, piled high with coal. And every turn or gust of wind swoops coal dust off the trains and into the local environment. 

Just how much this dust is adding to Long Beach’s severe air pollution problems is an important question that the Port should have analyzed in a CEQA study.

Whether or not to export coal is a major policy decision. It’s not a simple, run-of-the-mill business deal. Maybe it was 20 years ago, but today—in 2014—we know better.

Communities across the country have been standing up and saying NO to coal, including those in the Pacific Northwest and at the Port of Oakland. The Port of Long Beach, however, entered into these contracts completely blind and uninformed of the environmental impacts. This goes against the Port’s promise in calling itself “The Green Port” and goes against the spirit and letter of the California Environmental Quality Act.

All we are asking is that the City Council do what common sense—and CEQA—require: ask the Port to analyze the environmental impacts of this important decision. Only then can the Port and the City make an informed, thoughtful decision as to whether we really should be in the business of exporting coal.