At the latest in a series of hotly debated public hearings for more stringent regulations on petroleum storage tanks, a proposal regarding a different energy product also had people talking.

The Mobile Planning Commission approved an application to allow Cooper Marine & Timberlands to store coal at its dry-cargo terminal on Cochrane Causeway, despite acknowledging the company has done it without proper approval since 2010. Previously the facility had only been approved for wood chipping, City Planner Richard Olsen said.  

Stephen Harvey, an attorney for CMT, argued the zoning ordinance doesn’t specifically state a difference between storing “dry cargo” and “coal,” so the company wasn’t aware it needed specific approval. Harvey admitted the existing ordinance provides more detailed language concerning coal mining, but said CMT’s activities are solely limited to storage.

“We want to be in compliance,” he said. “We’re not disregarding zoning laws.”  

While the ordinance does specify that hazardous material storage requires planning commission approval, Harvey told commissioners coal isn’t considered hazardous by Environmental Protection Agency or Alabama Department of Environmental Management standards.

Opponents disagreed. South Dearborn Street resident Marie Dyson said the company should face the same repercussions as nearby Arc Terminals, which earlier this year was fined and forced to remove sulfuric acid it had been storing without approval.

“I urge you to deny this application,” she told the commission. “Arc was caught storing acid without permission and they had to remove it. It’s only fair to follow the same process for this. This company should be penalized, fined and ordered to remove the product.”

Harvey said it’s not fair to compare the CMT facility to Arc’s sulfuric acid storage because the coal has been in “plain view” and CMT “is not trying to hide anything.”

Pete Burns, a local attorney and North Jackson Street resident, compared it to Walter Energy’s proposed Blue Creek Coal Terminal in 2013, which was ultimately defeated after a public outcry complicated its approval and the Alabama State Port Authority purchased the property.

“Citizens saw it was something we didn’t want,” he said. “I know this isn’t Blue Creek, but this has less dust mitigation than what was proposed at Blue Creek.”

Harvey argued that the coal handling at CMT is not a coal terminal and therefore can’t be compared to Blue Creek.

“We only have a fraction of the coal Blue Creek proposed,” he said.
Regardless, Burns argued the coal dust emitted by handling facilities is hazardous to the health of nearby residents.

Dyson told commissioners the facility doesn’t have enough sprinklers for dust suppression and doesn’t appear to use the sprinklers it does have. Harvey refuted, saying CMT has a plant-wide “wet suppression” system and the coal piles are misted “when needed,” determined by a judgment call or when ADEM deems it necessary.

Kelly Baker, president of the DeTonti Square Neighborhood Association, expressed frustration with coal dust coming from riverside facilities at the port. She said the dust is harmful to residents and workers downtown and she asked the commission to require CMT to construct a dome over its coal.

Harvey criticized Baker’s suggestion and information he said the association put on fliers around the neighborhood, calling it “untrue” and “defamatory.” He said any coal dust downtown didn’t come from the CMT facility.

Storage tank public hearing
A public hearing on a draft amendment to the zoning ordinance for above-ground oil storage tanks featured at least 23 speakers from both sides, along with several video presentations. Industry advocates and employees generally argued that Mobile’s port is vital for future growth of the entire area and expressed belief the existing ordinance works, while residents and environmental activists pushed for more regulations and restrictions in order to improve safety and quality of life.

One of the proposals would restrict storage within 1,000 feet of the property line of the nearest habitable structure. Speakers from both sides complained about the setback for different reasons.

David Underhill, conservation chairman of the local and state chapters of the Sierra Club, told commissioners the way the language reads now, companies could simply acquire structures, tear them down and then build tanks to be in compliance with the regulations. Instead, he encouraged adopting the 1,500-foot-to-half-mile setback recommended by a citizens’ ad-hoc committee earlier this year.

Steve Gordon, general manager of Radcliffe Marine and president of the industry advocacy group Keep Mobile Growing, said applying a 1,000-foot setback would be bad for business and potentially “sign the closure notices” for companies currently regulated by the ordinance.

Gordon said the petroleum industry accounts for 40 percent of the tonnage in and out of the port and any new restrictions could damage its designation as an “energy port,” which could negatively impact the amount of federal funds available for dredging.

Dr. Ralph Pfeiffer, a local vascular surgeon, presented a video to the commission of news reports from around the country showing several train accidents — at least one of which was explosive — involving the transport of oil and other petroleum products. He used it to argue for a larger setback.

“How about an 85-foot setback from there?” he asked, suggesting anything within that distance was incinerated. “How about 1,000 feet, or 2,000 feet?”

Others complained the amended ordinance should require companies operating the tanks to bear more responsibility in the case of an accident and increasing the notification period to property owners in the vicinity of tank applications.