According to a complaint filed Feb. 5, environmentalists concerned about the expansion of a coal facility along the Mobile River near downtown have taken their fight to Mobile County Circuit Court.
Plaintiffs Suzanne Schwartz, Carol Adams Davis and Herb Wagner argue for an injunction to prevent Cooper Marine & Timberlands (CMT) from handling coal at its property on Cochrane Causeway, despite the activity’s approval by both the Mobile Planning Commission and the Mobile City Council.
The complaint, which names CMT, the city and the Planning Commission as defendants, argues rulings by the Planning Commission in November and the City Council last month failed to adhere to several steps outlined in City Code.
Allegedly, the commission “failed to determine the extent to which the public health would be affected by coal dust” from the facility. They also failed to disclose the amount of coal dust the CMT facility was generating, or the “number of homes, schools, churches and other properties that would be negatively impacted by coal dust,” the complaint reads.
The commission also failed to “investigate the measures that would be available to prevent coal dust from damaging the residents and properties in the Mobile community, especially those districts adjacent to the proposed coal facility,” according to the complaint.
Pete Burns, a downtown resident and attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he would like to see those measures taken in the future when considering any proposal for a coal handling facility.
“The overlying issue is we don’t have a mechanism in place to allow the Planning Commission and CIty Council to make an informed decision about risk and benefit of something like a coal storage facility,” Burns said. “We don’t know how much is generated … There’s not enough information for a risk/benefit analysis.”
Burns used a separate proposal as an example — the defeated Blue Creek Coal Terminal project — in which Walter Energy held a “science fair” showing how much coal dust it generated near schools and homes. In another example, Burns said the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System issued a report on a proposed pipeline in the Big Creek Lake watershed.
“What I think we need to have is an independent analysis that gives the risks and benefits of any proposed facility with the potential to harm the environment or people,” he said.
Planning Commission attorney Doug Anderson said the Planning Commission and the council acted appropriately and he would be filing a response to the complaint later this week.
Although CMT had been storing coal at the facility for some time without the appropriate planning approval, it received approval in November after CMT’s attorney, Stephen Harvey, claimed it was unaware approval was needed.
The planning approval was then appealed to the City Council, which upheld the original decision Jan. 5. At a Planning Commission meeting two days later, the complaint argues, the allowable volume of coal at the facility was changed from about 500,000 tons to an unlimited amount.
CMT has historically stored as much as 1.3 million tons at the site. Anderson has argued in the past the capacity in the zoning ordinance refers to the size of the footprint of the facility and not the size of the actual coal pile or volume of coal.
The complaint came within a month after the council refused to revisit the issue.