After nearly three hours of public comments, the Mobile City Council opted to delay its decision on a revised zoning ordinance for petrochemical storage tanks used by companies along the Mobile River — adding another week to a process that has taken years.
Following a recommendation from an ad hoc committee of environmentalists, citizens and industry leaders in 2014, the ordinance has continued to go through tweaks and changes in subcommittees and in discussions by the full Mobile Planning Committee.
Now, many environmentalists and Downtown residents, specifically those in Africatown, feel industry is coming out ahead of Mobile’s citizens in the final product. On the contrary, Port officials, business owners and staff from the Mobile Chamber of Commerce support the ordinance as is.
Representatives from in the oil and gas industry — many organized through Keep Mobile Growing — said they’re already agreeing to many more regulations for above ground tank storage than other seaports along the Gulf.Though more than 30 speakers addressed the council on Tuesday, the main concern of many was a single line in the ordinance. In the final portion of section 7B, a “grandfathering” clause would allow businesses that already have above ground storage tanks to add more without going through a public application to the Planning Commission.
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said her organization was originally in favor of the proposed ordinance until she realized the grandfathering clause could premit businesses to add tanks on land they already own.
That clause has been a particular concern for many, because Arc Terminals owns more than 30 acres that are not being used. That said, no representatives from Arc addressed the council and so far no plans for expansion on the land has even been discussed publicly.
Yet, according to Baykeeper Program Coordinator Cade Kistler, the Arc property is only a few hundred feet from the Mobile River and could house between 20 to 30 additional tanks. Under the current ordinance, environmentalists say the company could easily add between 20 to 30 tanks without having to go through the Planning Commission or any public input.
“We want this thing to go forward. We want industry to have the leeway to grow and build and do, but they’ve got to do it in the light of day. That is the only place where the public can have a say in what happens,” Callaway said. “We’re almost there, but we don’t quite have it. It’s one change, and I’ll bet money that the vast majority of people are up here because 7b is what concerns them the most.”
However, Jarrod White — an attorney paid by Keep Mobile Growing — said the grandfather provision was a key component that made other ad hoc committee concessions palatable for business along the river.
As it reads now, the current ordinance would require a 1,500-foot buffer zone between any residential home, school or church, which White said requires companies to give up “a lot of real estate.”
As others did, White said preventing a company from expanding their business operation on appropriately-zoned land they’ve already purchased would be a deterrent for current and future industries.
“The 7B provision allows those terminals to operate on their footprint, it doesn’t allow them to expand off of their footprint,” White said. “They can’t purchase new land and add tanks, it’s only the footprint that exists the day the ordinance takes effect.”
White also said any additional tanks would be submitted to the Planning Commission just not subject to a formal public review. However, he did say they’d be subject to the same zoning requirements as well as city, state and federal regulations that are already stringent.
Ordnance supporter Charlie Wilson said oil and gas industries working along the Mobile river are already agreeing to standards that are “18 times” more strict than requirements implemented by the federal government.
He also took issue with comments from others that the tanks were a significant safety hazard, when very few safety incidents have ever been reported in the Port of Mobile.
“You talk about hazards, the biggest hazard the country is facing is heart disease caused by obesity, but we all got excited when Costco moved in. There’s not any restrictions on the 15 pounds of chocolate covered raisins they sell at one time,” Wilson said. “This is an industry that has been in Mobile over 100 years. This isn’t at all about the safety of our citizens, it’s an all out assault on the oil and gas industry.”
While many in the environmental side did point to safety risks for myriad concerns, like potential railcar accidents, vapor emissions and potential chemical fires, many said they weren’t totally opposed to tank farms they just had an issue with location.
Dr. Bert Eichold, head of Mobile County Health Department, said he was concerned not only with vapor emissions, but also with the density of the number of fuels and flammable liquids housed near a downtown metropolitan area citing concerns over global terrorism.
In response to those and other potential dangers, Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons said storage tanks operate safely in Mobile and all over the world, and even though “there are accidents, painting a doomsday scenario here in Mobile is not a very accurate depiction.”
“I don’t think anybody is entirely happy. The operators of the tank terminals, I know there’s some parts they’re not really happy about, but there’s also some people that won’t be happy until the entire Port is gone,’ he said. “It doesn’t make everybody happy, which probably tells you it’s a pretty good deal, but I’ll urge you to go ahead and move forward with this.”
In the same spirit, many said the delayed process has already had an impact on the “business friendly” image of Mobile, urging the council to put an end to the two-year discussion on oil storage tanks.
However, given that a $600,000 contract for an extensive revamping of the city’s entire zoning code is in the works, others like District 6 Councilwoman Bess Rich suggested those experts could better address the specific issues of zoning ordinances.
Local attorney Pete Burns compared moving ahead with the decision before the overhaul to “a homeowner hiring an architecture firm to redesign his house, and saying, ‘I’ll do the living room myself.’”
“You don’t pay for expert advice and then make layperson decisions,” Burns added. “I urge you to go slowly. This is a major step. Let’s see if the experts think that, for a tourist city like Mobile with everything we’ve got going on, petroleum tanks are a really good idea. I don’t think he’ll say that, but if he does I’ll stand corrected.”
Separately, Councilman John Williams also suggested the council could benefit from more than a week to reach a decision on the contentious subject — a proposal that didn’t seem to sit well with others on the council.
Based on its normal procedure, the City Council is required to at least bring up the matter for discussion at the March 29 meeting. That means a decision could be reached, but it could also give environmentalists, residents and pro-business champions one last opportunity to add the debate that’s been going on since 2014.