Chris Williams Sr., pastor of Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church in Plateau, has officiated more than his fair share of funerals. He lays the blame for some of those untimely deaths on polluted air from nearby industry.
“I’ve [officiated] well over 100 (funerals) since I’ve been there,” he said. “One family I know buried three people out of one house. It was because of cancer.”
Williams was one of many speakers from a group of neighbors and activists speaking out against a planned expansion of the Kemira Water Solutions chemical plant during an Alabama Department of Environmental Management hearing in Chickasaw last week concerning the company’s air permit application.
Williams’ concerns over an expansion of industry near the historic Africatown community were echoed by many of those who spoke against the application.
“I would like to ask ADEM not to agree to this permit because our community has suffered from air pollution for many years,” Mary Jones, who lives across the the street from the plant, said. “Chemicals [they] are producing can cause cancer. Whole families in the community have died from cancer.”
Others questioned whether Kemira had the necessary precautions in place in case of an emergency, citing a May incident where a chemical being shipped to Kemira overheated. The company tried to mitigate the problem by spraying water on the container to cool it down, but residents downwind of the facility had to be temporarily evacuated.
For its part, Plant Manager Richard Ryder said there are emergency plans in place and they were followed on May 20.
“We did the best we could,” he said. “We brought it in and controlled it.”
Furthermore, he said emergency incidents affecting the surrounding community are rare and Kemira officials and employees practice different scenarios in case an emergency does happen.
Ryder said the chemicals used by Kemira aren’t dangerous when “handled appropriately,” adding the new processes to develop the polymers use best practices in the industry and meet ADEM rules and regulations.
In addition, Ryder said the air permit does not seek an increase in emissions and the existing site will be cleaned up.
“My feeling is a business needs to be going forward to stay relevant,” he said.
The expansion includes additional storage tanks, a bio-acrylamide production facility and a loading and unloading area, Ryder said. He added the air permit does not seek an increase in emissions and for the existing site some emissions will be reduced.
Yet Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition President Ramsey Sprague said the plans in place are not good enough.
“Kemira still owes it to the people to explain what happened,” he said. “Multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations should be able to afford a robust communications effort in order to get the word out.”
Sprague and others accused the company of not having a relationship with the surrounding community. Ryder suggested that going forward they would work to better reach out to the surrounding area.
ADEM plans to take public comments into consideration before reaching a decision on the permit, but in a statement during the hearing, staff engineer James Adams said the emissions from the bio-acrylamide facility would be minimized by scrubbers, a vapor recovery system and other technology.
“The control equipment meets federal and state requirements,” Adams said.
Residents warned of the impacts of multiple industries in the same area. Herb Wagner called the chemicals “bio-accumable,” meaning while one plant’s emissions might not make residents sick, a combination of several can. He said this minimizes efforts of ADEM to regulate industry when only considering an air permit for one plant.
“There’s no limit on the amount (of emissions),” he said. “There is no limit to the amount of people subjected to it.”
Wagner argued the emissions caused by plants like Kemira, “trespass on people’s property and a trespass on people’s health.”
“We’re talking about our health,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of children playing outside and breathing in these chemicals.”
Not everyone who spoke was opposed to the expansion. Former New York Mets outfielder and Africatown resident Cleon Jones said he supported the move. He said the plant would lead to progress for the community and Kemira has historically been a good neighbor.
“I didn’t know the plant was here until about five years ago,” Jones said. “That’s how good they’ve been to the area.”
Jones added the pollutants released by Kemira are “minimal.”
“It tells me that’s a responsible company,” he said. “Progress is what we need. I’m interested in jobs.”
The expansion would create a total of 30 new jobs, 20 of which would be included in a first phase. The company’s board has yet to finalize plans for the Mobile plant’s expansion, Richard said.
Earlier this year, the Mobile Industrial Development Board awarded Kemira $4.1 million in tax abatements over 10 years to help sweeten the deal for the company’s leaders. Kemira turns chemicals into polymers used to clean water used primarily in the pulp and paper industry. The incentives include a 10-year, $2.4 million property tax abatement and a $1.4 million sales and use tax abatement.
In exchange, the plant will undergo a 40 percent expansion worth around $49 million, pending its board’s approval.