Planning Commission Betrays Communities Seeking Environmental Justice with Weak Ordinance

Mobile, Alabama’s grassroots environmental justice fight isn’t about “jobs versus the environment”. It is about an inclusive municipal planning process versus well-oiled advertising campaigns, cronyism, and misinformation coming straight outta Houston. But it’s 2015, we need not poison people or degrade their property in order to prosper. Much of downtown Mobile’s tourism industry, as well as public health officials and community advocates agree with this sentiment.

The zoning ordinance proposed by the Planning Commission on above ground petrochemical storage tanks is an insult to residents, property owners, and breathers everywhere – but particularly to Africatown’s many historical significances. Throughout the last two and a half years of trying to be heard clearly, downtown communities have organized together to consistently say “No More Petro Tanks on Our River Banks”. Given the size and scope of what has been previously proposed, the passion and commitment that communities bearing the brunt of the locally-unwanted land use are displaying is unprecedented for Mobile.

On January 20, 2014, The City Council formed the Citizens’ Industrial Zoning Advisory Committee (CIZAC) to “develop recommendations to the Council relating to the issue of whether the zoning ordinance and the chart of permitted uses should be amended to limit the construction or development of above- ground oil or petroleum storage tanks within the Enhanced Scrutiny Area.”

Public Hearing Flyer 2

The Planning Commission was then to look at the CIZAC’s recommendations and develop language for an ordinance. Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) membership has been involved in almost every public deliberation held in the last two years, and it’s shocking to us that the Planning Commission’s Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tanks appears to have stripped most of the CIZAC’s decent recommendations.

Dirty energy lobby groups like the so-called Keep Mobile Growing group have been in the press condemning this weak ordinance outright, suggesting that petrochemical bulk storage tanks need no local oversight at all, suggesting that the “industry standard’ of an 82 foot setback from a house is good enough. That ludicrous argument makes it seem as though these rules must be okay, because something is better than nothing.

Well… these regulations don’t address many of the bottom-line concerns that community members have about how these kinds of tanks and industry, generally, impact the value of their private property and how the toxic vapor emissions from petrochemical storage tank facilities impact the health and well-being of those living downwind from them. You won’t see doctors in the media saying that tank farms in neighborhoods like Africatown are good for public health. Keep Mobile Growing has no doctors willing to do that, and, in fact, they don’t want to talk about health at all. But we have doctors. Nor do they intend to talk about property values in any honest way other than to say that they wouldn’t live 82 or even 1,000 feet from a petrochemical tank farm…

What if this were your neighborhood?

Here are some of our critiques on specific sections of the Planning Commission’s proposed ordinance, as written (download at this link to follow along):

Section 1K 2(c) – ORDINANCE APPLICABILITY BASED ON TANK SIZE ALONE IS INADEQUATE:

Defining the minimum capacity that triggers this set of regulations at 10,000 gallons is short-sighted and was addressed as such in the deliberation process. At the unveiling of the Subcommittee’s report to the full Planning Commission in May, Commissioner Thomas Doyle raised the concern that tank farm applicants might try to game the system by submitting plans where all tanks were less than 10,000 gallons in capacity. A tank farm with 40 8,000 gallon tanks should be regulated due to the total of 320,000 gallons of material it would have on site and its volume of emissions.

The total capacity of an above ground petrochemical storage tank site should also trigger regulation and not just the volume per tank.

CIZAC ON NOTIFICATIONS:

The City Council’s Citizens’ Industrial Zoning Advisory Committee (CIZAC) recommended much more robust reporting, notification, and public hearing processes for democratizing access to Mobile’s planning process. They said:

  • Notification should be made for residents and property owners within 1,500 ft, including making access to Spill Prevention Control and Continuance plans readily available for notified persons
  • An improved website for resident participation should be developed
  • 311 should have notifications for industrial projects by zip code and case #
  • Petrochemical tank & other hazardous materials applicants should provide a public informational meeting upon the written requests from 5 citizens
  • Impacted residents and resident coalitions could request Community Safety trainings with fire and law enforcement personnel to discuss a project’s potential hazards, including the project’s Spill Prevention Control and Continuance plan

Section 1K 3(a) – TIMING OF APPLICATION NOTICES:

15 days prior to an initial hearing is too short a window of time for projects of such magnitude for working community members to be able to attend downtown decision-making meetings during the work week.

More time should be given for notifications.

Section 1K 3(b) – WHO GETS NOTIFIED:

With no vapor recovery, the harmful vapors from petrochemical tanks are smellable for miles around tank farms. 1,000 ft from the proposed tank is far too small of an impact zone to consider for public notice.

Those living within a mile of a proposed project should receive notice.

Section 1K 3(b) – HOW TO MEASURE PROXIMITY TO TANK FARMS FOR NOTIFICATION:

Measuring from the proposed tank to a property line effectively limits almost all notifications going to neighborhoods living perilously close to industrial zones and would ensure that those being notified of proposed petrochemical tanks are only the most neighboring of property owners, typically other industrial properties.

Measurement for notification purposes should be set from the edge of the I-2 property to the edge of neighboring properties.

Section 1K 3(c) – WHERE NOTIFICATIONS ARE POSTED:

In addition to newspaper notifications, certified letters to neighboring property owners, and CIZAC’s recommendations, signs should be posted along the main right of way that a proposed petrochemical tank sits on, inviting public comment.

Where are Keep Mobile Growing’s doctors saying petro tank emissions are safe?

Doctors and scientists have concerns over ongoing exposure to above ground petrochemical storage tank emissions, which are released as tanks are filled and emptied. These fumes are the sources of the terrible oil- or asphalt-like stench that regularly saturates Mobile’s downtown communities.

According to board-certified Pediatrics and Medical Genetics Physician Dr. W. Wertelecki, M.D., “[p]etro-chemical pollutants are premier causes of miscarriages, birth defects, mental retardation, neurologic, respiratory disorders, childhood leukemia, and cancer. It is well documented that air, water, soil pollution and ozone levels in Metropolitan Mobile already are severe and that when permissible ozone levels are lowered in the near future, industrial expansions in Mobile may become limited. Risks associated with petro-chemicals relate to chronic leaks and transportation accidents.”

Board-certified Neurological Surgeon Dr. Bert Park, M.D. had this to say about petrochemical tank farms’ toxic vapor emissions:

“Having recently returned to Mobile after a 35 year absence, I have become increasingly concerned with the proposal to place above-ground petroleum storage tanks near vibrant residential areas. As a physician (neurological surgeon), I am also familiar with the closures of pulp mills during the 1990s, mandated in large measure because of justifiable health concerns. Not only did the surrounding area experience a striking increase in hematologic cancers (i.e. lymphoma and leukemia among the young in particular); I well recall the noxious fumes emitted by the mills during the period of my former residence here in 1980. I mention the latter, because having come from Kansas City where above-ground storage tanks of all sorts were plentiful virtually precluded any residential development near them for the same reason.

Mobile is currently experiencing a resurgence in restoration architecture, both residential and commercial, near the very area of the tanks’ proposed placement. In my view that will be counterproductive to such vital ongoing development. Yet speaking as a physician, an even more important concern is the well-documented health-care issues associated with shale and crude oil chemical contamination, whether in the air, water, or ground soil. Both types of oils contain significant concentrations of benzene (among other deleterious by- products), well recognized to be carcinogenic for humans.

Despite assurances that the possibility of untoward occurrences is allegedly slight should zoning ordinances be modified to accommodate petrochemical storage tanks near residential areas on the West Bank, the recent track-record nationwide tragically affirms that accidental leaks, spills, and explosions are on the rise—and strikingly so. If located in the area proposed, the so-called “collateral damage” would not only be immense, but would have longstanding negative repercussions on the environment.”

What excuse is there that the Planning Commission completely ignores concerns of prominent physicians and gives community members this:

Section 1K 4(b) – TOXIC VAPOR CONTROL:

CIZAC recommended “the best available odor control technology” be utilized, but the concern with vapor emissions from petrochemical storage tanks goes beyond odor. Mobile’s public health officials and downtown business leadership have released statements condemning the chronic exposure to petrochemical fumes from the storage tanks already lining the Mobile River that downtown communities often smell several times a week. Downtown certainly doesn’t deserve any MORE.

Mentioning the possibility of federal regulations is nice, but there are no federal regulations that cover above ground petrochemical storage tank vapor emissions outside of Clean Air Act (CAA) State Implementation Plans, which are unique for regions in noncompliance with the CAA. State of Alabama has none, either. Mobile has a right, written into the CAA, to protect public health by setting local air quality standards higher than the CAA’s minimums.

Emissions common to crude oil include volatile organic compounds linked to respiratory diseases and more exotic and dangerous chemicals like benzenes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are linked to cancers and birth defects and have no safe level of exposure.

Downtown communities, including Africatown, deserve vapor capture technology on bulk petrochemical storage tanks to protect public health.

Section 1K 5(a) – PETROCHEMICAL STORAGE TANK SETBACKS:

CIZAC originally suggested that “New petroleum tank developments should not be built within 1500 feet to 1⁄2 mile of residential community, private property, private businesses, schools, public places, historic structures or historic districts.”

A 1,000 ft setback from the “nearest habitable residential structure, church or, school” would still, by the ordinance, allow tanks at the old International Paper site in the Africatown community. Also, by defining the trigger for the setback to be a structure, and not a “residential zone”, it invites the purchase and liquidation of residential buildings for the purpose of creating a suitable setback.

MEJAC supports a dramatically stronger setback requirement for residentially zoned property like Africatown and other downtown neighborhoods, recognizing that Africatown overwhelmingly doesn’t want any more tanks.

Section 1K 5(b) – BLANKET IMMUNITY FROM DISCLOSURE?:

“Any portions of the Facility Response Plan that contain information that . . . the applicant otherwise considers potentially sensitive, shall be redacted.” Sensitive to whom? What justification other than Homeland Security requirements is there to deny information related to emergency responses?

There’s no need for this kind of language when it could be argued to be a catch-all phrase providing legal protection from disclosures that are not required by national security, at all.

Section 1K 6 – CONTENT CHANGES:

During the deliberation process, concerns were raised by Planning Commissioners about changes to petrochemical tank contents that have higher flammability ratings than crude oil, as recognized by NFPA 30 Classifications. It was argued that changes that increase flammability should require reapplication or public notice of some degree.

However, the ordinance was never changed to reflect that concern. As written, petrochemical companies could just drop a note by the office to bring more explosive petrochemicals than crude oil into neighborhoods. No oversight necessary.

If oil is compromising anyway, given the explosive nature of Bakken crude oil and tar sands diluted bitumen, storing more highly-flammable substances may expose a community to a higher degree of risk than it desires. Oversight, or at least a plan that recognizes that risks posed by different grades of petrochemicals post varying degrees of danger to neighboring communities, should be provided in instances of the storage of explosive materials in proximity to schools, churches, and homes.

Section 1K 7(b) – HAVING IT BOTH WAYS ON THE ORDINANCE’S SCOPE & THE GIVE AWAY:

The Enhanced Scrutiny Area (ESA) was set small to deliberately exclude consideration of the dozens of petrochemical tanks already operating primarily along the riverfront. During deliberations, critics on every side thought that was short-sighted and sought to expand the scope and consideration. Puzzling arguments as to why any potential ordinance needed to only apply to the ESA area were made, but…

This ordinance proposes grandfathering all existing bulk petrochemical tanks outside of the ESA as “conforming uses” without any mechanism of oversight. CIZAC recommended only grandfathering existing petrochemical storage tanks until “a change in use, a reconstruction of over 50% of the existing development, an abandonment of operations for one year, or an expansion of capacity will constitute new construction requiring re-application.”

Section 1K 7(b) also states that an increase in capacity alone is an appropriate metric by which to determine whether public notification or permit reapplication is warranted. This is again inadequate, because changes to the site or its contents could be dramatic with no oversight, as proposed by Section 1K 6.

Either apply the ordinance’s provisions to all of the city’s bulk petrochemical tanks or only apply them to the ESA and leave others out of the discussion.

WHAT’S LEFT OUT?

BONDING, INSURANCE, AND CATASTROPHE:

CIZAC recommended bonding and insurance requirements that considered catastrophic failure consideration. This ordinance doesn’t even address bonding, insurance, or even responsibility in the case of catastrophe, opening the door to claims of indemnity by tank farm operators or clients should a disaster occur, leaving taxpayers to foot their bills. Mobile is still suing BP… Haven’t we learned this lesson the hard way?

CONSEQUENCES FOR NONCOMPLIANCE:

The remedy for violations, as we witnessed with Arc Terminals’ illegal sulfuric acid storage scheme, is inadequate considering the real risks to health, well-being, quality of life, employment, and the environment. This ordinance has no specific remedies, whatsoever, meaning that non-compliant tank farm operators or clients would face a slap on the wrist if they were caught.

PROTECTION FOR AFRICATOWN’S HISTORICAL CHARACTER:

CIZAC recommended that “the Council create a new Africatown Heritage Protection Buffer Zone in the portion of the ESA surrounding Africatown, that provides a 1⁄2 mile transitional buffer that will be rezoned “I-1 Heritage Buffer”, in order to protect the historical character of the area, provide a transition buffer from I-2 industry to residents/schools/community gathering places there, and make appropriate redevelopment use of former I-2 heavy industrial and/or Brownfield sites.” NONE of that language is included or considered anywhere…

Given the impact, the Commission should adopt a Petrochemical Heritage Buffer for all historic districts in the city – INCLUDING AFRICATOWN.

Africatown Boat Safari Highlights Hog Bayou’s Mobile-wide Connections

Africatown Boat Safari Highlights Hog Bayou’s Mobile-wide Connections
Its rich heritage and ecosystem holds possibilities, perils

July 13, 2015 Mobile, Alabama – Hog Bayou rests atop Mobile to the north of Africatown’s residential neighborhood. The wetland backwaters have been used as a source of food and recreation by Africatown residents since the community’s founding by former African slaves in 1870. Major Joe Womack and other Africatown elders often recount how their relationship to the wetland ecosystem shaped their youth.

Major Womack telling stories on the water

Major Womack telling stories on the water; image by Carol Adams-Davis

Major Womack took such an opportunity last Friday afternoon on a first-of-its-kind boat tour of the Hog Bayou wetlands area. Organized by Africatown Community Development Corporation (Africatown CDC) in partnership with the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association, Mobile Branch of the NAACP, Mobile Bay Sierra Club, and Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) through a generous in-kind donation by Five Rivers Delta Safari, the tour saw 40 participants from partner organizations, Mobile City Planning staff, and press obtain a fresh look at Mobile’s too-long abused wetland ecosystems in its North.

The Africatown Safari route shown with waterfront petrochemical facility and residential neighborhood locations

The Africatown Safari route shown with waterfront petrochemical facility and residential neighborhood locations

Valerie Longa of Five Rivers Delta Safari led the tour with welcome assistance from the passengers. The trip took passengers from the Mobile Convention Center up the Mobile River to Chickasabogue Creek, whose tributaries flow from as far west as Semmes and as north as Citronelle. Those waters form the Hog Bayou wetlands just before the Chickasabogue spills into the Mobile River, where the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge connects the CSX Intermodal Terminal rail yard downtown to all points north and east of Mobile.

A Truly Industrial Riverscape

As it motored upstream, the boat passed bustling commercial river traffic and the day-to-day drama of a port notorious for exporting fuels with long lists of collateral impacts like coal and wood pellets in addition to its impressive naval weapons manufacturing capacity as evidenced by the USS Montgomery LCS-8 naval combat ship docked at Austal USA’s shipyard.

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

The boat passed no less than seven above ground petrochemical storage tank farms. The explosion of tank farm activity on the Mobile Riverfront is a relatively new development when contrasted against the hundreds of years the port has been operating. Ones installed in 1976 and today operated by Arc Terminals are amongst the oldest, but most of the others arrived on Mobile flood-prone waterfront within about the last 15 years.

Their fumes afforded no opportunity to ignore their imposing profiles; these facilities release highly toxic varieties of air contaminants into the atmosphere daily too close to neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Many visitors have said the petrochemical odors penetrate downtown Mobile during their visits, which is a real scandal considering that technology exists and is regularly used elsewhere to sequester harmful vapors from storage tanks away from human lungs and the atmosphere.

A Door Opens to Hog Bayou, but What Plans Lie Ahead?

Approaching the Africatown-Cochrane bridge, the safari boat captain called ahead to the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge, rightly named for how its central axis swing action permits larger vessels opportunity to cross the low-pass Mobile & Montgomery CSX Subdivision crossing. Witnessing the bridge turn for the safari boat was a very powerful feeling.

Africatown Safari Tour Guide Valerie Longa

Safari tour guide Valerie Longa; image by Carol Adams-Davis

Once past the Kimberly-Clark forest product manufacturing facility, the scene turned placid quickly. A turn westerly into Hog Bayou saw a baby alligator duck under water upon approach. Seagulls swooped as osprey hunted the waters. From its shoreline driftwood perch, a striking anhinga cautiously watched the safari boat glide past. Tour guide, Valerie Longa, helped identify the fauna while sharing much about the others who call the Mobile-Tensaw Delta home.

LS Power’s natural gas power plant provided a constant hum in the Hog Bayou backwaters. Originally constructed by a Shell gas subsidiary and coming online in 2002, the facility was operated by Mobile Energy LLC, a locally-incorporated Calpine Corporation and InterGen partnership, which managed to survive a tough decade for a bankrupted Calpine until last year’s announced sale of the plant to a different set of Houston-based handlers, LS Power. The petrochemical industries are rarely stable for long.

Map showing the location of the currently withdrawn American Tank & Vessel tank farm, with rail and truck terminals and pipeline tie-in.

To the south of LS Power an otherwise vacant lot currently owned by the mysterious Hydrocarbon of Mobile LLC since October, 2011 had concrete crushing equipment working away at the foundations left when International Paper shuttered its dioxin-spewing paper mill after 55 years, instead of cleaning up their act. This was the previously proposed location of American Tank and Vessel’s withdrawn permit application to build a 37 tank petrochemical tank farm with 10 new rail tracks, a crude-by-rail loading terminal, a 4-bay tanker truck loading terminal, and a tie-in to the Plains Southcap pipeline connected to Chevron’s Pascagoula Refinery through the watershed of Big Creek Lake, Mobile County’s only drinking water reservoir. The likely operator and ultimate beneficiary of such a site, Plains Marketing LP, operates another Africatown-based tank farm situated on Magazine Point. It was Plains’ pipeline that, in February 2014, dug up the storied baseball field of the Mobile County Training School, Alabama’s first accredited public high school for black students.

After two years of public outcry, the second mayor-convened working group on tank farms, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Planning Commission’s Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tank Farms, recommended a set of zoning guidelines which would ostensibly permit an American Tank and Vessel-style tank farm in Africatown, pending full Planning Commission approval. While some of the Subcommittee recommendations are common sense, others, like the 1000 foot setback from a residential structure, are simply insulting.

Compendium

No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns

Following the public release of the Subcommittee’s flawed recommendations, Africatown residents and MEJAC organizers participated in the publication of a grassroots response called “No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns“, which contains white papers from Mobile-area doctors, Mobile County Health Department leadership, Mobile-area business owners, historic district advocates, and residents uniting to say that the tank farm situation has become untenable and illustrates only the direction in which Mobile should not be headed.

With respect to currently vacant property held by the secretive Hydrocarbon of Mobile, the Africatown CDC has proposed that this property receive remediation funds via the BP RESTORE Act to turn this area, with its Hog Bayou access, into a park, RV camp grounds, and small boat launch. If funded, the Africatown camp grounds would become one of only two public boat launches into the bayous immediately north of Mobile, and the only one in the City of Mobile. The CDC has also proposed a similarly funded comprehensive habitat survey of the entire Hog Bayou wetland area.

A Major Tar Sands Hub in the Making?

Exposed pipeline

Faded signs for curious and aging infrastructure

After dashing behind the Kemira and Occidental refineries, synthesizing plastics and caustic soda respectively, the safari boat passed a section of pipe jutting above the water line. As the safari exited Hog Bayou and took a northerly turn up Chickasabogue Creek towards the Port of Chickasaw, hardly readable, sun-faded signs on the shore warned barges not to anchor due to underwater pipeline and cable crossings.

Arc Terminals Chickasaw

Arc Terminals Chickasaw site with rail and truck loading facilities

The boat’s arrival in the Port of Chickasaw was greeted with the overwhelmingly foul stench of petrochemical volatile organic compound emissions. The tank farms in this part of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta release their toxic vapors untreated into the atmosphere similarly as those along the Mobile River. Both NuStar Energy and Arc Terminals operate petrochemical tank farms in the Port of Chickasaw in addition to their Mobile Riverfront facilities, but Arc Terminals’ Chickasaw facility is quite different than that of its more southerly kin in that it incorporates a rail loading terminal.

The truck traffic from this site travels down Telegraph Road on a daily basis to deliver hazardous products through Chickasaw, Prichard, and Africatown neighborhoods over the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge to the eastern bank of the Mobile River, where Arc’s other tank farms were sited by past Planning Commissions without much regard for the health and safety of those exposed to their fumes. Tanker trucks filled with hazardous petrochemicals routinely cause accidents or tip themselves over turning onto Bay Bridge Road, a major arterial highway that bisected Africatown and saw neighborhoods condemned and residents removed from their homes for ‘progress’; as was the case along Tin Top Alley, which industrial developers recently proposed for a used military equipment junk yard.

Floating in the Chickasabogue Creek, the safari passengers could clearly see Arc’s huge black tanks labeled “crude condensate”. This by-product of the shale oil and gas fracking process is used as the diluent constituent of diluted bitumen aka tar sands, or as its known when delivered via rail, ‘railbit’. At one point, Arc Terminals had a vision for Mobile which included receiving railbit tar sands via trains from the Alberta tar sands mines. Those trains would be sent back to Canada filled with the crude condensate diluent to use in the production of more railbit tar sands, effectively turning Mobile into a major hub of tar sands via rail. So complete was their vision that they were already marketing their plans in February 2013 at the First Annual Crude-By-Rail Summit in Houston, Texas.

Indeed, it was the widespread outrage generated by the public disclosure of these plans that precipitated the City of Mobile’s two year above ground tank farm zoning saga. Discussion began with former Mayor Sam Jones designating the first mayoral working group on tank farms referred to as the Ad-Hoc Committee on Above Ground Storage Tanks to explore city-wide regulations on the industry. The Ad-Hoc Committee’s recommendations were widely seen as very reasonable, but current Mayor Sandy Stimpson disagreed with their conclusions enough to form another working group, the Planning Commission Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tanks, to review the Ad-Hoc Committee’s recommendations and develop plans more in-line with his administrative vision for Mobile. Mayor Stimpson’s appointed Planning Commission will be holding hearings on the Subcommittee recommendations soon.

New City of Mobile petrochemical tank farm zoning regulations may push dirty development slightly further away from Africatown but closer to Chickasaw's Gulf Street Alley neighborhood

New City of Mobile petrochemical tank farm zoning regulations may push dirty development slightly further away from Africatown but closer to Chickasaw’s Gulf Street Alley neighborhood

Should zoning regulations ultimately be adopted that forbid the construction of an American Tank and Vessel-styled tank farm at the old Industrial Paper site, other properties slightly further away from Africatown but still accessible by pipeline, rail and truck like the International Paper North and Alabama State Port Authority lands on either side of Hog Bayou may ultimately be pursued.

In that case, Chickasaw’s Gulf Street Alley neighborhood, which is, like Africatown, surrounded by heavy industry would be just as close to an International Paper North tank farm and intermodal petrochemical loading terminal. MEJAC has stated its interpretation of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice mission and would not support the siting of these facilities anywhere near any neighborhood in the Greater Mobile Bay region.

Leaving the Port of Chickasaw down Chickasabogue Creek, safari guide Valerie pointed out a “huge osprey nest” to the wowed passengers. It was clear that despite appearing industrialized on aerial maps, the Hog Bayou wetlands still brims with an untamed wilderness.

Africatown’s Isn’t the Only Tar Sands Threat

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

At the height of controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands mining corporations were considering options as pipeline capacity experienced bottlenecks. Arc Terminals took advantage of the political atmosphere in February 2013 by marketing its expanded petrochemical vision of Mobile as a major railbit tar sands hub. Unit trains of tar sands started arriving shortly thereafter from the Canadian tar sands mines, parked as otherwise unexamined above ground storage behind the historic GM&O Building at the Canadian National Railway (CN) terminal downtown. Within 500 feet of the Orange Grove Apartments and in immediate proximity to the City of Mobile’s downtown Wave Transit Terminal, Arc and CN had ostensibly partnered to create an expanded intermodal terminal based on their functioning Port of Chickasaw model with much greater capacity and added bells and whistles like a natural gas-fired steam bath to heat crude-by-rail tankers and heated pipelines under the Mobile River to Arc’s East Bank tank farms.

It’s unclear at this point if any of what had been proposed to investors and crude-by-rail shippers came to be financed or completed, but permits were granted by Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Army Corps of Engineers for the under-river pipeline project. Neither Arc Terminals nor CN have been forthcoming to the public.

At the June 30th Mobile City Council meeting, District 2 Councilman Rev. Levon Manzie asked Arc for such clarification but didn’t receive a direct reply. That meeting ultimately resolved that in order to understand where the business was coming from in its proposal for a Sulfuric Acid expansion for one of its East Bank petrochemical tank farms, Arc would prepare a public “science fair” in the next month’s time to explain what its long-term business plans are. At this time, no dates have been set.

image by crude-by-rail-destinations-summit.com

Sulfuric acid tankers parked by GM&O terminal downtown

In any case, above ground bulk storage via parked railcar of petrochemicals and other hazardous materials hasn’t been justly considered by either of the mayoral tank farm working groups. Citing this facility so close to both the Orange Grove Apartments, De Tonti Square Historic District, and the Wave Transit Terminal when downtown residents and tourists have regularly complained of toxic nuisance odors from the tank farms across the Mobile River from downtown is yet another profound violation of the public trust by Arc Terminals.

A Bomb by Any Other Name

Some of the Lac-Mégantic Casualties; image by TheStar.com (https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/07/12/lac_megantic_where_they_died.html)

Some of the Lac-Mégantic Casualties; image by TheStar.com (https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/07/12/lac_megantic_where_they_died.html)

July 6, 2013 saw a crude oil unit train barrel into downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada in the middle of night. The resulting inferno killed 47 people instantly and leveled huge portions of downtown. The blast zone was half a mile wide around the tracks. Insurance claims to date have sought more than $50 million in damages. Discourse amongst those living in direct proximity to rail lines carrying explosive crude-by-rail has since resulted in these trains being labeled “bomb trains” both due to the uniquely volatile contents but also the poorly-designed tanker cars themselves. In response, this year’s second annual international Week of Action to stop oil trains saw over 100 actions in the largest protest against bomb trains in history.

2013 witnessed 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled by bomb trains, more than the past 40 years combined. In 2014, 57,000 gallons spilled. In response, federal regulators at the National Transportation Safety Board have sought to review transport options in concert with their Canadian counterparts. Tens of thousands of public comments in favor of taking the antiquated DOT-111 tanker cars off the tracks were considered.

In the end, the standards announced May 1, 2015 fell far short of expectations, leaving many questions unanswered. DOT-111s will be discontinued for the transport of Bakken crude and ethanol, but will remain in service for railbit tar sands and presumably other volatile and hazardous rail traffic as well, despite documented derailment-caused tar sands explosions like that which occurred near Gogama, Ontario on February 14 this year and the fact that even rail carriers have largely conceded their dangers.

The explosive nature of transporting railbit tar sands is often overlooked, but tar sands industry groups and their university partners are definitive in saying that tar sands via rail is every bit as volatile as notoriously detonation-prone Bakken shale oil. The reason why lies in the fact that tar sands must be diluted for easy forms of transport. Indeed, it is the addition of diluent that makes it dangerously explosive, yet another unique chemical property of tar sands slurry that industry loves to gloss over when calling it no different than conventional crude oil.

Tar Sands: An Unconventionally Risky Investment

Carbon Tracker report

Investment advisers warn against tar sands due to the low global price of oil

In mid-2014, a downturn in global oil prices due to the glut in US produced fracked shale oil has resulted in many tar sands producers scaling back their extraction and shipping goals. Many tar sands projects have folded altogether resulting in billions of dollars in losses for those careless enough to invest. In fact, tar sands investment advisers have questioned whether or not anything less than $95 per barrel is even economically sustainable, at all. A nuclear deal with Iran is expected to further lower worldwide oil prices.

The DOT-111’s replacement, the DOT-117, is hardly an improvement with its hull being increased to just under a half inch thick to just over a half inch thick. This paltry increase amounts to only a few more miles per hour of puncture protection, at best. For instance, the April, 30 2014 derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia was a train using the updated standard tanker cars. In light of this, many first responders elsewhere, like fire fighters unions, are speaking out against the new “safety” regulations about how unprepared they are should an accident occur. Though the tar sands investment downturn has signaled fewer railbit tar sands bomb trains rolling through Mobile, it doesn’t mean bomb trains aren’t present.

Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge occupied by a bomb train

Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge occupied by a bomb train; image by Carol Adams-Davis

Floating downstream, the Africatown safari boat returned to the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge only to have the safari captain announce that it was occupied. Upon approach, it was clear that it was full of DOT-111 tanker cars carrying a variety of hazardous cargo. The sobering moment illustrated the fact that as long as communities are unjustly targeted for heavy industrial development without their fully-informed consent, they could be put into extremely risky scenarios.

Even if the proposed tank farms with intermodal transport terminals never go forward, Africatown, downtown communities, and those living along arterial train tracks are still at risk from antiquated and dangerous DOT-111 bomb trains and the “upgraded” DOT-117s. Should any of the proposals move forward, it would portend many hundreds more bomb train tanker cars similar to the ones seen crossing Chickasabogue Creek arriving daily in downtown Mobile, loaded with explosive cargo.

Why Tar Sands Infrastructure, Anyway?

Hartselle Graphic

image by Alabama Cooperative Extension System (http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-2192/ANR-2192.pdf)

Tar sands geological formations are known to be present in North Alabama as the Hartselle Shale. The Alabama Oil and Gas Board is currently developing rules that would define how mining the Hartselle Shale formation should proceed. The formation, which stretches from the Birmingham area all the way northwesterly to the Tri-Cities region, already has extraction companies lined up to start work.

One of those companies, MS Industries has already been fined for waste water permit violations, and mining activities supposedly haven’t even started, yet. If this is the type of company with which Mobile-area rail and tank farm facilities like Arc Terminals and Plains Marketing are willing to partner, it doesn’t spell a very good future for Alabama’s precious Mobile-Tensaw Delta or the watersheds that feed it.

Business, Like Good Governance, Is a Two Way Street

Once the bomb train had passed, the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge opened back into the wider Mobile River, bustling as ever. As the safari passed under the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge one last time, a tanker truck from Telegraph Rd. careened down the East Bank bridge descent towards the Mobile Riverfront tank farms.

Over at Cooper/T. Smith’s Cooper Marine & Timberlands’ terminal, Maryland’s Enviva, one of the largest wood pellet manufacturers in the United States, was busy providing wood pellets to European markets hungry for cleaner-burning fuels but largely ignorant of the devastating consequences unfolding in the rural Southeast US from the extraction of a so-called ‘renewable’ resource – forests.

On both banks of the river at another of Cooper/T. Smith’s energy export facilities and concurrently at the Alabama State Docks, coal was being unloaded from barges rushed downstream from North Alabama. The uncovered Asian market-bound coal blew its toxic dust into the air where nearby monumental cranes greeted manufactured goods from those same markets stuffed inside shipping containers whose resting places on seafaring warehouses were quickly replaced with land roving warehouses aboard diesel truck and rail track. Commerce continued.

Disembarking

The Africatown Boat Safari passengers disembark after a thoroughly engaging trip

As the boat docked again at the Mobile Convention Center and passengers of the first Africatown Hog Bayou Safari disembarked onto solid land, no one doubted the utility of having taken the time for the safari. An opportunity to see otherwise familiar places from new perspectives affords insights into how seemingly intractable problems may yet have solutions, should those seeking be open to them.

In this new era for Alabamian racial justice, every opportunity to relate the incredible stories of Africatown’s residents, historical and present, to the fates and fortunes shared by the larger Mobile population is appropriate. To make Mobile better is to make Mobile more representative of its people who dare to say that one another’s lives matter, even if it flies in the face of the ostensible plans of Stimpson administration appointees. In its pursuit of environmental justice, Africatown lifts all voices seeking redress for historical wrongs that previously wouldn’t seem to right. For that, many in the Mobile Bay region are thankful.

Written by Ramsey Sprague for MEJAC.wordpress.com
Images by Ramsey Sprague, some rights reserved, unless otherwise noted

Take a trip through the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge!

Mobile City Council Delays Vote on Arc Terminals’ Sulfuric Acid Tank Expansion

Mobile City Council Delays Vote on Arc Terminals’ Sulfuric Acid Tank Expansion
Questions Linger over Risk Mitigation and Long-Term Plans at their Tar Sands Tank Farm
by Ramsey Sprague for MEJAC.wordpress.com

JUNE 30, 2015 12:30pm – In a 5-2 vote, Mobile City Council approved District 2 Councilman Levon C. Manzie’s motion to delay an appeal vote on the Planning Commission’s approval of Arc Terminal’s sulfuric acid expansion at their tar sands tank farm by six weeks.

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

Fourteen people testified strongly against the approval including President of the Church Street East Neighborhood Association Greg Vaughn who called for Arc Terminals to host a public information session about their long-term business plans, a sentiment echoed by De Tonti Square Neighborhood Association President Kelly Baker, several MEJAC speakers, and ultimately by Councilman Manzie.

Councilman Manzie found it “totally unacceptable” that someone from Arc Terminals’ leadership wasn’t present to answer questions related to insurance and liability. Arc Terminals was solely represented by Mobile engineer Gary Cowles of Cowles, Murphy, Glover & Associates who initially opposed Councilman Manzie’s suggested delay.

District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson noted that he would’ve voted ‘no’ without more evidence of Arc Terminals’ responsibility with respect to sulfuric acid’s extreme danger supported by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and similar agencies.

Manzie also stated plainly that he couldn’t understand what harm a public information session would be for a company like Arc Terminals if all of their plans were above board and understandable. A meeting like this would have the potential to “change minds”, he said.

Council President Gina Gregory kindly explained to Cowles that a vote today wouldn’t likely result in a favorable outcome for him and his client. Cowles ultimately acquiesced to a delay but only after trotting out in defense of Arc Terminals that Blakeley Island, where this property sits at 1437 Cochrane Causeway, wasn’t included in the Mayor and Council’s “Enhanced Scrutiny Area” explored by the most recent Subcommittee of the Planning Commission on Above Ground Storage Tanks.

The Subcommittee’s report and suggested zoning amendments were roundly rebutted by Mobile-area medical professionals and neighborhood advocates, whose 60-page report “No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns” was released earlier this month.

Many Pressing Concerns Lacked Adequate Reply from Cowles, Arc

The fourteen Mobile residents who spoke all had excellent points independent of each other. Walter Power said there was an emergency situation on June 11 in which a garbage vehicle had become disabled due to a teaspoon of sulfuric acid being tossed in someone’s trash. Suzanne Schwartz noted that the Planning Commission’s pre-approval of all eight tanks on the site was not only unorthodox but irresponsible. Mobile Bay Sierra Club’s Carol Adams-Davis pointed out that many of the tanks in question were built in 1975, before the current international standards for sulfuric acid storage were adopted by bulk storage industry organizations.

De Tonti Square Neighborhood Association President Kelly Baker mentioned how the Port of Mobile was shut down for two whole days in 2011 when Arc Terminals, then known as Gulf Coast Asphalt, spilled nearly 100,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil on their property and an unknown amount into the Mobile River. The company’s name change followed shortly thereafter.

Reminding all that Mobile is still very much involved with a long-term strategic planning process, John Klotz recalled that he never once heard anybody say in any of the planning sessions he attended that Mobile should expand its petrochemical tank farm holding capacity and variety. Quite to the contrary, limiting or doing away with the tank farm industry was brought up repeatedly and received widespread rounds of applause every time.

Along a similar line of inquiry, longtime Africatown advocate Major Joe Womack said he felt very encouraged with Mayor Stimpson’s strategic planning initiatives and how communities from all across Mobile have turned out to express their feelings with one very conspicuous absence – the tank farm industry. Why, if they are so confident that their plans benefit all of Mobile, have they not shown up to participate in any meaningful way, he wondered out loud.

Mobile attorney Pete Burns spoke of a vacant lot he purchased in De Tonti Square to build a historically-styled house upon. He harkened back to the years of campaign dollars spent promoting downtown investment in Mobile, which promised growth based on the “Charleston model”. He said that he was talked into buying a ticket to Charleston but it looks like he might end up in Port Arthur!

Lella Lowe speaking on behalf of MEJAC President Teresa Fox-Bettis noted that a total amount of 3.8 million gallons of sulfuric acid storage was approved by the Planning Commission in a very ecologically sensitive area. She went on to point out that other sulfuric acid storage facilities have contaminated the nearby soil and groundwater by reliance on substandard liners. Barbara Caddell spoke to the need for Arc Terminals and similar industries to have adequate insurance coverage for catastrophic failures.

Conservation Chair of the Mobile Bay Sierra Club David Underhill pointed out that similarly-situated structures on river banks have been damaged by all manner of debris in hurricane storm surges resulting in catastrophic architectural failures. If a similar situation were to occur at Arc Terminals’ sulfuric acid storage, he said, “There would be no fix.”

Bethany Knight Metzger decried the fact that as a downtown real estate agent it is becoming harder and harder for her to ‘sell Mobile’ when it used to be much easier. According to her, people are starting to ask about blast zones and the nuisance odors. Mobile newcomer, Ramsey Sprague, pleaded with council to consider the adverse affects on the already toxically overburdened Africatown community as sulfuric acid trucks would be routed through the heart of the community along Bay Bridge Road to Arc Terminals’ storage facility.

District 6 Councilwoman Bess Rich raised concern with the Planning Commission’s capacity as non-experts to handle such life-threatening decisions. She suggested that petrochemical applicants should pay for outside, independent consultants to prepare comprehensive briefings for staff, Planning Commission, and Council that would answer many of the pressing questions raised by the fourteen speakers.

Multinational Corporations Owe Communities Greater Transparency, Not Less

As Brenda Bolton pointed out in her testimony, Arc Terminals is financed by New York City’s Lightfoot Capital Partners, which is in-turn 58% majority owned by multinational corporation GE Energy Financial Services. Multinational corporations should be held to higher standards of disclosure precisely because they are not rooted in the Mobile community in the same way as a local bakery or tailor.

Should Councilman Manzie’s public information session with Arc Terminals and downtown Mobile residents come to pass, it will quickly become apparent that the long-term plans of Arc Terminals mirrors that of Houston’s Plains Marketing/Southcap/All-American, owner/operator of the 36″ tar sands pipeline running through the Big Creek Lake drinking water reservoir watershed. According to Arc’s publicly available trade documents, they are intensely interested in courting business with Canadian tar sands transporters like CN and CSX Railways, tar sands strip miners like Koch Industries, and major tar sands refiners like Chevron and Valero.

Their vision: Mobile Bay as a major petrochemical hub of the tar sands industry with extremely volatile natural gas condensates arriving from Gulf state shale oil and gas fields to trade places with incoming tar sands from Canada, shipped back on the Canadian corporation-owned tracks in the same antiquated tanker cars referred to commonly as “bomb trains” to become diluent for the diluted bitumen/tar sands slurry only to be railed back to Mobile. Pretty slick, eh?

Despite the fact that GE Energy Financial Services is quick to tout its billions of dollars in investments in solar energy, Mobile Bay and her residents are left to suffer through their investments in the dirtiest and most dangerous of petrochemical industries.

Why is Mobile receiving the most toxic end of the energy investment sector? Why aren’t the plans for the massive petrochemical expansion along Mobile Bay made public to Mobilians to discuss on their earned merits?

These are precisely the kinds of questions that Gary Cowles, Arc Terminals, and their dirty development partners are wary of fielding. But by agreeing to the delay, Cowles and Arc have agreed on shedding some much-warranted light on the situation.