The Mobile City Council has already added extra steps in the process for approving the placement of oil and petroleum storage tanks in some parts of town, but now another controversial energy source is raising a figurative, if not literal, dust cloud — coal.
The Blue Creek Coal Terminal is seeking permission to locate on Virginia Street and would replace the Mobile River Terminal that was last operational in 2010-2011. During its Dec. 5 meeting the Mobile Planning Commission delayed its decision on allowing this until its Feb. 6 meeting, but one Mobile group is not waiting for that outcome to voice an opinion.
Tar Sands Oil Mobile is a group originally formed to fight against the building of a Plains Southcap, LLC pipeline through the Big Creek Lake watershed. Now they are adding a new focus — to oppose the Blue Creek Coal Terminal project at 80 Virginia St.
Birmingham-based Walter Energy is asking to build the $140 million Blue Creek Coal Terminal on 37 acres near the Brookley Aeroplex, which will be the site of the Airbus manufacturing center. Blue Creek would not be connected to Airbus in any way.
The terminal is also near residences and other non-coal businesses, and many feel it has the potential to add to an existing problem for District 2 residents — coal dust.
In 2007, McCrone Associates analyzed five Mobile houses in the downtown area. The results showed there was considerable coal dust pollution on the homes, which were located on South Warren, South Dearborn, South Jefferson, South Lawrence and South Claiborne. Residents pointed their fingers at McDuffie Coal Terminal, and some residents feel a new export coal terminal would only compound the problem.
Greg Vaughan, local attorney and Church Street East resident, said the existing coal dust issues would be much worse if the Blue Creek Coal Terminal were approved.
“It has been a problem since 2007 when a report showed the material accumulating on the houses was up to 40 percent coal dust. That’s a legitimate problem, and it’s still a legitimate problem,” he said. “For my neighborhood, the coal dust would be worse if the Blue Creek Coal Terminal was approved. It’s very close to downtown.”
A sample letter by Tar Sands Oil Mobile for its supporters to sign and send to planning commissioners outlines their concerns.
“While the Blue Creek facility is located within a heavy industrial area, it is also a stone’s throw from schools, churches, a retail marine sales outlet, parks, recreation facilities, a nursing home, apartments and family neighborhoods, as evidenced by the map before you. The Texas Street neighborhood is working valiantly to revitalize itself — a daunting task — made more difficult by the proximity of this type of heavy, dirty, industrial development, if approved,” it reads.
The letter also addresses another threat the terminal may pose, noise.
“The health and safety of the residents is jeopardized by this type of industrial development. Consider the NOISE. Have you ever heard a coal conveyor system in operation? The sound is deafening. The cacophony of noise from early morning to evening will saturate the entire area. The proximity to the river will cause the noise to be amplified and carried far beyond the local area.”
The group also asked people who live in the areas affected by coal dust to wipe their homes with white cloths and bring them to city council and planning commission meetings.
The company has made arrangements it claims will keep dust to a minimum. According to a report put together by members of several city departments, misting cannons will keep the coal dust pollution down to a minimum by wetting the two coal stockpiles. When the coal is being moved on site, it will be shielded with covers that have dust suppression fog cannons.
But Tar Sands Oil Mobile is also concerned about the other 60 acres attached to the existing site.
“The current application lacks any information with regard to future development. We need to insist that before any approval can be granted that the (Planning Unit Development) shows all proposed activity now and for the future. What’s going to happen to the adjacent 60-plus acres,” the letter reads.
“Piecemeal applications for approval chop up the long-range development goals of these sites and allows companies like Blue Creek Coal to reach their goals without revealing the complete, final negative impact of their activities.”
But Walter Energy already has one important voice on its side — the city’s Urban Development Department.
Urban Development has recommended the planning commission approve the request, but did note concerns about the chemicals in water used for dust suppression. The proposed coal terminal is within the right zone, which is industrial, which means it meets the city’s requirements.
However, Vaughan argues the planning commission has the option to deny the request.
“There are certain uses in an (Industrial-2) zone that require the commission’s approval and one of those uses is a coal terminal,” Vaughan said. “The proposed coal terminal must be ‘in harmony’ with the community and I don’t believe that has been shown right now. It’s not in harmony with the area. It wasn’t in 2007 and it isn’t now.
“I don’t think Blue Creek Coal Terminal has shown the burden of proof that it would be in harmony with the neighborhood.”
The energy company received industry tax credits by the Alabama Legislature in 2012, which helped them proceed with the $1.2 billion project that is mainly in Tuscaloosa County. The billion-dollar project also includes the proposed Blue Creek Coal Terminal.
The Blue Creek project will start in Tuscaloosa with the creation of a new coal mine and is expected produce four million tons of coal for export to steel mills internationally starting in 2018, according to the company.
To transport the coal internationally, the company is building a barge-loading terminal in Walker County on the Black Warrior River. If approved by the Mobile Planning Commission, the coal from Tuscaloosa County, by way of the Black Warrior River, will come to the Blue Creek Coal Terminal on Virginia Street.
The Blue Creek Energy project is expected to employ 530 people statewide who will earn an average of $120,000 per year.
Attempts to get a comment from Walter Energy were unsuccessful before press time.