Ruth Ballard said she can sit on her front porch again. The 79-year-old, two-time cancer survivor would like for the air in her Africatown community to stay clean, but she said in the past it hasn’t been, and it remains threatened by new industry.

“I enjoy sitting on my porch,” she said. “My sister has an enclosed porch and a swing across the street. With industry here, I would not feel comfortable going outside.”

Recently, Ballard has seen investors looking to develop the former International Paper site across from her home at the intersection of Jakes Lane and Garfield Street. While more than one proposal has been rejected by city officials, Ballard feels her way of life is constantly under attack.

“With the health issues I have, any other pollution they put in the environment would disadvantage my health,” she said.

She blames the community’s “mill heritage” for her cancer diagnoses, adding that five of her seven siblings have also battled the disease.

In addition to health and quality-of-life concerns, Ballard worries about her home’s value if petroleum storage tanks are allowed near her property.

“The view would be changed,” she said. “Who wants to walk out their door and see tanks?”

Ballard joined a crowd of concerned citizens and industrial professionals at a business meeting of the Mobile Planning Commission Thursday, June 11, to discuss a subcommittee’s recommendations on a proposed amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, involving the permitting of new above-ground petroleum storage tanks.

Among the findings the Planning Commission discussed was placing a minimum 1,000-foot setback on any new petroleum tank application. Community members have said in the past that a 1,000-foot setback was not far enough, while industry professionals said the radius limits them too severely.

“All new tanks already have to comply with setbacks mandated by the National Fire Protection Association that provide full protection to the public based on science and the facts,” Keep Mobile Growing attorney Jarrod White wrote in a letter to Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson. “No other port in the Southeast or Gulf Coast (which includes Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)) has fixed setbacks applicable to above-ground storage tanks other than those already imposed for industrial uses.”

White said the setback would put the port at a complete disadvantage.
Steve Gordon, president of Keep Mobile Growing, said he also has concerns over the setback recommendation because he didn’t hear anything about existing tank farms being “grandfathered in.”

“They didn’t talk about putting in a new tank if I’ve already got a footprint,” he said. “If we don’t have the opportunity to expand, it’ll stagnate the port.”

Nigel Roberts, community development director and Planning Commission member, said there was a question related to the setback amount and entitlement funds for the Africatown area. After the meeting, Roberts said he believes tanks would have to be at least 1,000 feet from residential property lines for the area to still qualify for some federal redevelopment or preservation grants.

The subcommittee also recommended changes to the application submission process. For instance, any future application would have to include a list of all permits and approvals needed to complete the project, type, amount and classification of the product to be stored in the tanks, and explain how the product will be transported to and from the site.

If the recommendations are approved, future applicants for tanks larger than 10,000 gallons would be sent, at the applicant’s expense, to property owners within 1,000 feet of the center of the tank. The application fee will also be increased to $1,500.

Written notice to the city will also be required if an applicant wishes to change the product being stored from its original classification.

Among those concerned about additional industrial development is Dr. Vladimir Wertelecki, who wrote a letter to the Planning Commission in opposition to an expansion of the petrochemical industry in Mobile.

In the letter, the former chairman of the University of South Alabama’s Department of Medical Genetics called the petrochemical industry “most dangerous, polluting and detrimental to communities such as Mobile.”

“Petrochemical pollutants are premier causes of miscarriages, birth defects, mental retardation, neurologic [and] respiratory disorders, childhood leukemia and cancer,” Wertelecki wrote. “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.”

The Planning Commission has chosen eight sites with an “enhanced scrutiny area” compatible  for petroleum tanks in the future. Judy Adams, spokeswoman for the Alabama Port Authority, said only three sites of the eight are actually feasible. She said the others are either owned by the state, are capped and can’t be used again, or are inaccessible.

“Of the three viable sites, two are on Blakeley Island and away from residential zones,” she said.

Africatown resident Daryl Pogue said the community has plans for the historical development of the area and told the Planning Commission those plans could be hampered by further industrial development.

“It could serve as a hindrance to the vision and plans and enhancement of the community,” he said. “As we attempt to develop the community to shore up its heritage and its rich history … tank farms are not conducive to that type of lifestyle.”

The Planning Commission will most likely take another pass at the recommendations before they are eventually compiled into a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance. The commission and the Mobile City Council will have to approve any amendments before they are adopted.