Trains heaped with coal pass through Richmond every week on their way to the city's port.
In Parchester Village, a largely black and Latino neighborhood in northwestern Richmond, residents say coal dust blows off the open mounds, covering the grass and coating their screen doors.
“This little neighborhood, nobody seems to care about,” says Paul Marquis, who moved to Parchester Village three years ago.
Marquis says in the last year, he’s seen more trains go by, and more black dust on his property.
“It’s everywhere,” he says. “If your truck sits here for two, three days without moving you can write your name on the front.”
To demonstrate, Marquis pours a bucket of water down his screen door.
It runs off dark.
That coal trains can lose particles and dust from open cars is no news to BNSF Railway, which has studied the issue. BNSF found that every uncovered coal car can lose between 500 pounds and one ton of coal in transit.
It’s such a big safety problem on the tracks that BNSF requires coal companies in Montana and Wyoming that ship a lot of volume to cover their coal cars or spray them down to reduce the amount of dust lost in transit.
But no such rule applies to the coal cars traveling through Richmond because those shipments come from Colorado and Utah, states that don't ship as much volume.
After passing Parchester Village, the coal cars trundle on to the privately owned Levin-Richmond Terminal on the waterfront, just south of Interstate 580.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt says he doesn’t know how many coal trains pass through his town because federal law protects that information. But he describes it as “a big operation.”
Last year Richmond exported more than a million tons of coal and petcoke combined.
Coal ships mostly to Japan and Mexico.
Petcoke comes in covered trucks from the nearby Phillips66 refinery to load onto boats headed for Australia and Europe.
“People are worried,” says Butt. In the last year he says more residents have called his office to ask about the coal cars. “Fresh coal actually does have an odor to it,” he explains. “People can smell it and they see it and they don’t know what it is.”
It’s not the first time the contents of stockpiles at the Levin-Richmond Terminal have raised concerns.
The company began exporting coal in 2013, but before that had exported petcoke for at least a couple of decades. Three years ago, an environmental group sued the Levin-Richmond Terminal over its handling of the petroleum by-product.
“They will pile it up very high on the order of ten, twenty, thirty feet high on the dock,” says Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper.
Staff at the non-profit observed problems at the terminal during a boating patrol.
“Our staff saw the material dropping from the conveyor belt directly into the water, saw it falling off the piles into the water, and blowing off of the piles into the water.”
Baykeeper sued the Levin-Richmond Terminal for violating the Clean Water Act.
Admitting no wrongdoing, the company settled the lawsuit in 2014. The terminal operator agreed to enclose the conveyor system it used to load the ships and to stop loading when the wind is too strong. Choksi-Chugh says the settlement has reduced water pollution problems.
Nothing has been done, however, to address potential health problems related to airborne particles from the piles of coal and petcoke, or from the rail cars that transport the coal.
The company declined to be interviewed but in a written statement said it complies with all regulations and rules, and is considering a plan to enclose the stockpiles.
Just outside the terminal fence, Mayor Butt bends down to scoop up a handful of black soot, “You can see there’s dust here. You can see the remnants of it.”
For Butt the question isn’t whether there’s dust escaping the Levin-Richmond terminal operations, it’s “How much, and how far away does it move, and what’s the size of the particulate matter?”
Butt says that’s information he’s like to get.
Federal law regulates petcoke and coal dust -- not as toxic substances -- but as particulate matter. Because particulate matter tends to effect communities in close proximity to the source, it usually falls to state and local governments to enforce limits. That’s one reason efforts to diminish particulate matter from petcoke and coal vary widely in California.
Air regulators for the San Francisco Bay have a district rule that prohibits visible dust from crossing property lines, but according to Eric Stevenson with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, it’s hard to enforce.
“An inspector has to be there for a certain amount of time,” Stevenson explains, “see the dust particles crossing across the fence line, ensure that those particles are coming from that facility.”
Documents obtained by KQED under a public records request shows that BAAQMD’s inspections of the Levin-Richmond terminal found no visible dust coming off the property from 1997 to 2011. And then regular inspections stopped.
In 2012, the inspector assigned to the facility investigated a complaint of dust coming from the terminal, but found no supporting evidence.
Over the last three years, since Baykeeper sued and coal exports began, the air district has not inspected the property.
Part of the challenge for regulators is that the district lacks specific rules governing the storage or transport of petcoke and coal.
Stevenson says regulators focus resources on the largest sources of emissions, like Chevron and other Bay Area refineries.
“Usually what we do is attack emissions and things like that in a ‘what are we going to get the biggest bang for our buck?’ kind-of-way.”
Compared to Chevron, the Levin Richmond Terminal is small potatoes.
But at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports, exports of petcoke and coal are a much bigger deal. Shipments of both started causing problems there over twenty years ago.
“We had a significant number of complaints from residents near the ports,” recalls Mohsen Nazemi with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Nazemi, who directs engineering and compliance, says the houses of people living near rail tracks and truck routes were blanketed with black soot, and so were the schools.
“We thought it was a health issue," Nazemi says, "because some of the particles were fine particles and if you inhale fine particles it can cause respiratory and other types of health problems.”
In the l980’s the South Coast Air District adopted new rules that require refineries and ports to enclose conveyor belts and stockpiles. Trains and trucks had to cover their loads.
A recent report found no more significant problems with petroleum coke and coal dust in the area.
Last month, the Richmond City Council passed a resolution urging Bay Area air regulators to adopt the South Coast’s rule.
Air district staff is drafting regulations that would closely mirror Southern California’s rule but it could take a year or two for the board to adopt them.
Recently, the Sierra Club and the California Nurses Association began surveying residents at Parchester Village for health impacts from coal dust.
On the first day of the survey, nurse Maria Sahagun knocked on the door of a house where the back yard faces the train tracks.
A six-year-old girl was doing cartwheels across the yard.
“So agile!” exclaims Sahagun. Then, fighting back tears, observes, “She’s the perfect example of the children in this community that are affected by the coal dust.”
Sahagun, who worked at Doctors Medical Center until it closed in April, says the girl has asthma so severe medications sometimes don’t work and she has to go to the emergency room.
Activists plan to continue surveying Richmond residents through the summer.
The BAAQMD's board is expected to begin parsing new regulations on coal and petcoke dust later this year.
Correction: This post originally stated that BNSF owns the train tracks that ship coal to Richmond. In fact, BNSF does not ship coal in California. Union Pacific “has on occasion hauled coal to the city of Richmond,” according to a company spokesman. The coal comes mainly from Colorado and Utah.