It’s not always a lock around here that public desire will shape public policy.
Let’s talk doughnuts, for instance. I’m sure if you’d have asked 1,000 people living in the Oakleigh/Leinkauf/Old Dauphin Way area a few years ago if they would like to see the old Krispy Kreme on Government Street get a drive-through, the vast majority would likely have said “Heck yeah!” or at least “fine with me.” But the city wouldn’t let the owner have a drive-through, he got mad and closed up his doughnut shop.
So now I’ve got no place to take my kids to watch doughnuts being made while we ingest enough of those molten sugar beauties to alarm the American Diabetes Association. But we did get a boarded-up eyesore in trade. Score that a push.
Aside from pure deliciousness and a tendency to stick to the side of a house once it lands there, coal dust and a Krispy Kreme doughnut don’t really share many traits. Still they are linked in my mind because it seems the same kind of disregard for what the people want that left us Krispy-Kremeless in MiMo is likely to land us some new big, uncovered piles of coal down by the river.
A company called Walter Energy wants to build The Blue Creek Coal Terminal along the banks of the Mobile River on a piece of land not far from the mountains of coal already being handled at the McDuffie Coal Terminal. While Blue Creek will be smaller than McDuffie, it still plans to have two 90-foot piles of coal — way more than Santa uses in a bad year.
Walter Energy claims it will produce 30 or so jobs and bring the county a couple hundred thousand a year in tax revenue each year once it’s up and running. Not bad numbers, but not the kind that should have everyone slapping on their “I Heart Breathing Coal” buttons.
So what in the world does this have to do with what happened at Krispy Kreme? It’s kind of the opposite. In this case I’d bet if you asked anyone living in downtown, Church Street East, Detonti Square, Oakleigh, Down the Bay or Old Dauphin Way if they think this new coal terminal is something they want, you’d get a resounding “Hell no.” In fact we know it. There’s already a petition with 1,600 signatures from individuals and almost 40 businesses against Blue Creek as it’s proposed.
But the damn thing keeps moving forward like a zombie. It passed the city’s Planning Commission 4-2, with half the members abstaining or not showing up to vote. (Ahem)
There’s been a raging debate over coal dust in the neighborhoods near downtown for years. People in that area claim McDuffie Coal Terminal can’t keep its dust to itself and drops it all over their homes, businesses and buildings. A 2007 study put together by folks who felt they were in danger of getting black lung while watching “Judge Judy” determined about 40 percent of the dust they were finding on their homes was coal. That’s impressive since the average garden district home is dustier than Oklahoma in 1935.
But to be fair, in a story we did in 2009, Port Director Jimmy Lyons touted his own study showing the dust on people’s houses was only 15 percent coal.
Let’s account for the different agendas here and split the difference in the studies. That would still say about 25 percent of the dusty stuff on people’s homes in that area is coal. Should that be OK? Even 10 percent seems irresponsible to me.
But this debate isn’t about McDuffie, right? It’s already there. They spray $360,000 worth of water on those coal piles a year to try to keep them from coating downtown, and back in that 2009 story Lyons was talking about doing half a million bucks worth of landscaping to help stop the dust. How well all that works is arguable.
While McDuffie is here, Blue Creek isn’t — yet. And outside of people at the port, the city and people who work with Walter Energy, it’s hard to find someone who is excited about having two more 90-foot piles of coal dust stationed along the river.
The people at Blue Creek claim they will have the greatest coal terminal ever, loaded with fog cannons and misters, and that they’ll spray their coal with some kind of “crusting agent.” They say the “crusting agent” is made of chemicals, MOST of which are biodegradable. I say it sounds like the name of a punk band.
They too plan to spray rivers of water purchased from Mobile Area Water and Sewer all over their coal and will have a pond where all that water can settle before they dump it and the crusting agents. They say the amount of dust they release won’t even be visible to the naked human eye! Their own projections for the microscopic amount of coal they will release should make me feel silly for even writing this column.
Maybe all that’s true. But when I asked them how much coal is already on houses in the 3.7-mile area they consider “ground zero,” they couldn’t answer. These guys may indeed be the equivalent of an unplugged flute quartet playing alongside AC/DC in an area with ongoing sound ordinance issues, but you think they’d know how many decibels Angus and the boys are cranking during “For Those About to Rock” before they sidle up to play “Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in D.”
Not knowing how much coal dust McDuffie is kicking while they’re trying to move in alongside doesn’t speak well for the planning at Big Creek. They also own another big piece of land nearby, but haven’t divulged plans for that yet.
In many parts of this country a project like this wouldn’t even be considered without the company agreeing to build a dome to hold back the dust. Yes, such a dome is several million dollars and apparently companies find it preferable to spray those millions out through fog cannons and crusting agents.
But given the amount of opposition, along with the significant amount of coal dust already coating our downtown area, allowing Blue Creek to add to the mess — whether it’s one ton of dust a year or 11 tons — makes about as much sense as a Krispy Kreme without a drive-through.
Might be a good time to listen to the will of the people because once Blue Creek is here any mess they make is everyone’s.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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