Half of the Mobile Planning Commission approved Walter Energy’s Blue Creek Coal Terminal during a lengthy meeting on March 20.

The 4-2 vote brings Mobile’s second coal processing facility closer to fruition.

Those opposing the terminal, including more than 1,500 individuals and 36 business owners, will have 15 days to appeal the decision to the Mobile City Council.
Attorney Greg Vaughn said the group plans to do just that.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision of the planning commission,” Vaughn said. “We showed them in 2007 that we have a coal dust problem in Mobile, and we showed them this engineering firm and Walter Energy have no experience designing coal-handling facilities.”

Tom Hoffman, vice president of communications for Walter Energy, said the company was pleased with the commission’s decision. Hoffman said the extensive information the company submitted to the commission would also be available to the city council. At the opening of the Blue Creek deliberation, commissioner John Williams asked to be excused after 30 minutes.

“It is my belief that we’ve heard all we’re going to hear today, and I’m assured by one side that there will be nothing new presented to this commission,” Williams said. “I ask my colleagues to move to a vote and forgo further public hearing, recognizing that today is not the end of this discussion and it will be appealed.”

Because six members of the commission were already absent or had recused themselves from voting on the issue, Williams’ presence was required in order for the board to maintain a quorum.

The call for an early vote failed due to lack of support from other commissioners, and Williams stayed throughout the entire meeting. The main concern of the opposing group is the inadvertent production of coal dust.

Walter Energy plans to house two 80-90-foot-high coal stockpiles at the facility, which will be located along the banks of the Mobile River.

Gary Cowles, the lead engineer for the project, said 90 percent of coal dust is produced as coal is transitioned from one area to another, which Blue Creek plans to address with a system of 20 fog cannons.

“These provide a water vapor barrier to prevent particulate emissions,” Cowles said. “There are also 16 misting cannons at each coal stockpile, which provide a water vapor barrier to prevent erosion during wind events.”

Cowles said the prosed facility would also use a covered-transfer method in certain areas.

Allen C. Dittenhoefer of Birmingham gave a report on a comprehensive air impact assessment conducted on behalf of Walter Energy. The report, which was conducted using emission dispersion models approved by the EPA, concluded the proposed coal terminal would emit less than one ton of particulate matter each year, which is far below the required standard.

“In 2011 there were 16,675 tons of (particulate matter) emitted in Mobile County,” Dittenhoefer said. “This facility, in a worst case scenario, is expected to produce around 11 tons.”
The opposition to the terminal claims what Blue Creek is proposing is impossible.

They’re concerned the facility will cause dust to be carried into the downtown and midtown areas, even with the use of crusting agents (surfactants) and misting.

“The planning commission’s own staff reported they don’t have the experience necessary to verify the claims,” Vaughn said. “They’ve made a decision based upon Walter’s speculation and a paid expert.”

Vaughn said there’s not other facility in the country that exists with this type of technology, so there’s no way to verify the amount of dust control Walter Energy claims it can maintain.
Walter Energy is currently involved in lawsuit filed in February over its facility in Birmingham.

Moore vs. Walter Energy, Inc. and Walter Coke, Inc. was filed in the district court of Alabama’s northern district and claims property damage from deposits of various waste substances including but not limited to arsenic, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(k)fluoranthene, dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, chrysene, and indeno(1,2,3-cd) pyrene in neighborhoods located close to the facility.

During the planning commission’s meeting, Smith said the facility in north Birmingham has been operating for decades.

“Many of the facilities in that area have been in place for over 100 years, and there is room for improvement there,” he said. “This coal terminal we’re seeking the approval of is one of the most dramatic improvements in operational technology that’s ever been presented.”