With nearly forty speakers from the community, environmental groups and the industry signed up to speak — a three-hour public meeting wasn’t enough time for a subcommittee of the Mobile Planning Commission to hear all that needed to be said about above-ground petroleum storage tanks along the Mobile River.

The committee composed of planning commission members Shirley Sessions, James Watkins and Allan Cameron, is tasked with reviewing the zoning ordinances for the storage facilities.

After public input is gathered, the committee will make a recommendation to the planning commission that may not include any changes, or perhaps, could increase restrictions about where such facilities can locate and what regulatory benchmarks the city requires them to meet.

On Jan. 29, the subcommittee lent the floor to multiple speakers in Government Plaza, but when time ran out, a second meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 3.

A petroleumn tank property is shown near the Africatown community.

A petroleumn tank property is shown near the Africatown community.

At the center of the debate is the future, both of Mobile’s job growth and the city’s environmental sustainability and curb appeal. With seven petroleum storage facilities along the Mobile River already, some citizens began to think the city needed to beef up its zoning ordinances to keep the industrial away from residential areas and small businesses downtown.

However, there are currently no proposals to create any new petroleum storage facilities or to expand the I-2 heavy industrial zone – the only section of the city they’re allowed to operate in.

Attorney Wanda Cochran said zoning laws arose out of the prevention of public nuisance, and went on to quote from former Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland’s 1926 opinion from Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co saying “it may merely be the right thing in the wrong place.”

“There is not a single tank in this city that has a right to locate here, because it’s not in the chart of permitted uses. That’s why we’re here,” Cochran said. “The Mobile City Code says ‘the purpose of the zoning ordinance is provide the harmonious development of Mobile in accordance with the master plan.’”

Cochran called Mobile’s master plan — which Alabama requires for adopting zoning ordinances — outdated and an example of “politics frozen in time.” Originally set in the 1950s, Corcoran said tar sands didn’t even exist when it was first composed. She also said, from a legal perspective, the city had everything upside down.

“Mobile needs to thaw out, step up and do some serious planning around this issue,” she said. “I’ve read in the newspaper that the mayor has already made that a priority, and I’m happy to hear it, but for today, and the issue before this subcommittee, there is only one question — will more above-ground storage tanks make Mobile better?”

As previously Lagniappe stories have documented, that’s a question that varies depending on who you ask.

Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, spoke at length about the value of Mobile’s port and how increased regulations could cause a ripple effect with implications for jobs, the local economy and federal appropriations.

Processing 55 million tons of various products each year, Mobile’s port is the 12th largest in the country and is accessible to large ships and barges only through a federal shipping channel. Lyons said that channel requires a significant amount of dredging, which the Army Corps of Engineers spends $25-30 million on annually.

“The federal government’s willingness to devote those funds depends on the volumes we move through here,” Lyons said. “Petroleum that move through state terminals vital part of that makes up about half the tonnage that works through the port.”

He went on to claim the petroleum storage tanks already operating along Mobile River have and can continue to operate safely. In his 16 years with the port, Lyons said he can only recall one incident involving tank storage that was successful cleaned up with “no lasting environmental damage to the port.”

“It’s my opinion that the tank terminal industry has adequate regulations in place today as one of the most heavily-regulated industries in the area,” Lyons said. “However, I would urge this committee to look very hard and see if there are any regulations beyond those that are in place today that we could have. That way our citizens can be assured these companies can continue to function safely, as they have for more than a 100 years.”

Brenda Bolton, who also spoke about a need for more regulations, took offense to the petroleum industry’s comments about “Citizens not being educated enough to contribute to this conversation and offering only feel good comments,” she said. “Quality of life does indeed feel good.”

On the contrary, many from civic organizations including Keep Mobile Growing are more concerned with economic stability, which proponents say is secured by a business-friendly and prosperous port.

Frank Lott, president of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, took the microphone to discuss the implications to jobs created by port beyond the waterfront. It is important to note that most of the numbers Lott used were cited from an economic impact study from Auburn University Montgomery Dr. Keivan Deravi paid for by the Chamber.

Lott said the energy sector has a $5 billion impact on the Mobile region, and said all of the six major industries recruited by the MACC — aerospace, healthcare and biomedical, manufacturing, oil and gas exploration and maritime transportation and distribution — all rely heavily on the availability of affordable and abundant energy sources.

“Twenty-five percent of Mobile’s economy is led by the energy sector. The four refineries nearby represent 10 percent of the U.S.’s total refining capacity, and storage tanks are a critical link to that capacity,” he said. “We don’t need to change any existing regulations with the port. That would have a chilling effect on the recruiting of future industry who would be cornered the rules might change for them after they’ve invested millions in our economy.”

Lott also said the issues weren’t based around a single project, but an entire industry and encouraged the Planning Commission to evaluate each proposal individually.

Some standing in opposition to the tanks floated the idea of moving the petroleum industry to the Theodore Shipping Channel, but Judith Adams, vice president of marketing for ASPA, said there isn’t adequate land space or infrastructure to support such an idea.

“All of these terminals also have 100 years of infrastruc tied to them,” Adams said. “The docks, barge docks, pipelines — they have a network that they’re already connected to. None Of That exists in Theodore.”

Patrick Cagle, the lone employee of the Montgomery-based non-profit Jobkeeper Alliance, also made a trip down to Mobile to discuss skilled labor and launch accuations at the Mobile Bay Sierra Club, which has been very vocal in its opposition to additional petroleum storage.

Cagle encouraged the subcommittee not to be taken by the Sierra Club’s narrative, which he said was “ideologically invested in a falsehood” and tied to the national Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign.

“The Mobile Bay Sierra Club portrays their efforts as a homegrown, grassroots movement, but the it’s actually a fully-owned subsidiary to the San Francisco bay’s Sierra Club,” he said. “The objective of the beyond the oil campaign is to successfully end the use of oil. They are just asking Mobile to take the economic hit so they can achieve their radical national agenda.”

Attempts to reach the Sierra Club for comment about those allegations have so far been unsuccessful.