The Mobile City Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday to deny the appeal, brought by several residents, of the Planning Commission’s decision to allow Cooper, Marine and Timberlands to store coal at its dry cargo facility on the east bank of the Mobile River.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the area, and Councilwoman Bess Rich voted to uphold the appeal, while Councilman Joel Daves, who is the council’s representative on the Planning Commission, abstained. Council President Gina Gregory, Councilman C.J. Small, Councilman John Williams and Council Vice President Fred Richardson voted to deny the appeal.
The appeal brought by representatives of several downtown neighborhoods, other residents and members of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, argued that CMT violated the city’s zoning ordinance in 2010 when it began storing coal at the facility previously approved for wood chip handling.
Dearborn Street resident Marie Dyson said CMT should be treated the same as Arc Terminals, which was forced to remove sulfuric acid from on-site tanks, when it was disclosed during a similar appeals process that they had been storing it without the proper permission.
“Arc got caught,” she said. “They were cited, fined and told to remove the product. CMT got caught and we ask that you have them remove the product.”
The city is currently working on a deal with Arc, which would replace the $67,000 in accumulated fines with a donation to the city, City Attorney Ricardo Woods said. The amount of the possible donation is not yet known, but Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said it would “have to be” higher than the fine amount.
Stephen Harvey, an attorney representing CMT, told councilors that this issue is different because the coal piles at CMT are out in public view and not in a tank.
“We’ve hid nothing and we have nothing to hide,” Harvey said.
Harvey argued that CMT is not a terminal, like McDuffie Island and therefore does not process coal. He said the facility is on the east side of the river, unlike the proposed Blue Creek coal terminal and its capacity is much less than those other places. Harvey told councilors during a pre-conference meeting that the facility stored around 460,000 tons of coal, according to the application. During the appeal hearing, he said that while the application said 460,000 tons, the facility has held as much as 1.3 million tons.
Planner Richard Olsen told councilors he interpreted the Planning Commission vote sealed CMT to a 460,000-to-500,000 ton cap and any increase in tonnage would need planning approval. Harvey said he disagreed with that interpretation.
He furthered explained neither the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, nor the Environmental Protection Agency classifies coal as hazardous, so when the coal was stored the company didn’t realize it needed additional planning approval.
Suzanne Schwatz said she feared more coal dust in the air would put the city, as well as Mobile and Baldwin counties at odds with stronger EPA regulations in the future. She said becoming a so-called non-attainment zone would require more regulations for businesses and individuals and would affect federal funding, including for the Interstate 10 bridge project.
Dauphin Street resident John Klotz argued to hold off on the approval of the storage facility or anything related to the energy industry until a comprehensive plan for Mobile and the region can be completed.
Others, like DeTonti Square resident Pete Burns and MEJAC President Ramsey Sprague asked councilors to require a dome over the coal storage portion of the facility to hold in the coal dust that rises into the air during the loading and unloading of coal.
Burns said the coal dust is not only damaging to the health of residents, but it’s expensive to residents as well and would damage any future prospect for business.
Harvey told councilors he was told a dome wasn’t cost effective for the company. He also argued that when enclosed, like with a dome, the coal dust could become harmful for employees, when it otherwise wouldn’t be.
Carol Adams-Davis, a McDonald Avenue resident and Mobile Bay Sierra Club member, provided councilors with a number of questions related to government standards of which she was concerned CMT was in violation. For instance, she said the facility did not receive a Army Corps of Engineers 404 permit, which would’ve required a public interest review.
When asked about that specifically by Manzie, Harvey said he didn’t know if CMT had gotten that exact permit, but said he knew they had received all the permits that were required.
Greg Vaughan, president of the Church Street East Homeowners Association, complained that coal dust is an issue for residents in the neighborhood and CMT would certainly contribute more coal dust to the problem.
“It’s undeniable they emit coal dust,” Vaughan said. “No one wants to breathe in more coal dust.”
He told councilors citizens were “overwhelmingly” opposed to sites that would emit coal dust and used a reference to a petition with 1,600 signatures to help make his point.
He also used a local television news report which quoted City of Mobile, Alabama Cruise Terminal manager Sheila Gurganus as saying coal dust was a problem for the terminal’s upkeep.
“I don’t know who pays the tab at the cruise terminal, but I know who pays the tab at my house …,” Vaughan said. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
In other business, the council approved a $72,535 contract with Volkert for signal timing upgrades on Airport Boulevard from the Pinebrook Shopping Center to Sage Avenue.
The council also voted to name 16 new nuisance properties and ordered them to be repaired or demolished.
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