Before the Mobile Planning Commission held over a controversial vote to approve a 40-acre coal-handling terminal on the banks of Mobile River, Doug Anderson, the commission’s attorney, warned that any decision the commission ultimately made would almost certainly be appealed to the City Council and Circuit Court.
“This is the most important application you will hear for years,” he said. “It will have a far-reaching effect. Whatever decision you make will be appealed… As your attorney, I want to provide all the information ahead of time so you can study and make the most appropriate decision.”
The applicant, Walter Energy, is proposing to build a terminal where metallurgical coal, which is not burned for power, will be offloaded from barges and transferred to ocean-going vessels for use overseas. According to a spokesman, the terminal is related to a mine in Tuscaloosa County that is projected to produce more coal than can be processed by shipping arrangements the company already has with the Alabama State Port Authority.
Gary Cowles, a Mobile engineer representing Walter Energy locally, told the commission today the company is planning a public meeting to dispel “misinformation” about the project.
“I do believe we have some educational information to provide,” he said, suggesting the applicant would host a “hands-on, science fair-type” meeting where the public could learn about the control of particulate emissions and waste water runoff.
Cowles said the proposed facility would be “environmentally responsible,” but admitted it was too early in the development phase to provide every detail.
Tom Hoffman, vice president of communications for Walter Energy, said that because the projected $140 million facility is being built from the ground up, it could be designed to meet any standards or restrictions.
“In early phases, we’ll bring coal in by barges and use a clamshell crane to reach over, scoop up the coal and drop it into vessels,” he said. “But as the terminal’s capacity grows, we would have a need for coal plow…vertical buildings, conveyor belts and chutes — a more automated way of transferring coal.”
Opponents of the project argue that coal transfer facilities cast toxic dust onto neighboring properties and discharge metal-laden wastewater into surrounding waterways. But Hoffman said the industry has developed several methods to control dust and runoff.
“Because we are building from scratch, we’ll have to design the necessary technology to suppress dust on site and control surface runoff,” he said. “I recently got a question about all the rain in Mobile. Well, surface runoff from all industrial sites is part of doing business. Typically we collect water in pond and let solids settle and we can reuse the water to suppress dust or get a permit from the state to discharge it into the river.”
Hoffman said the property was used by U.S. Steel for the same purposes for 50 years before it was sold to Walter Energy.
“It’s a project where we’re not trying to upgrade old equipment, we’re putting in new equipment, so we have the ability to design it in a way to take into account concerns of dust and water pollution.”
Among four opponents to the project who were given time to speak, attorney Pete Burns asked the commission to consider it’s “harmony and order” with the rest of district, pointing out that a petition circulating against the project has collected more than 1,300 signatures.
“You have to recognize there is an opportunity lost if we bring in another coal handling facility,” he said, adding that the project is “not a net job creator.”
“Will it help us get a cruise ship? Will it help us get Airbus suppliers? Will it help us bring more tourism in?”
John Williams, the commission’s lone city council member, was in favor of granting the holdover, saying he didn’t have adequate information from either side.
“We haven’t seen anything other than generic information,” he said. “We need to know exactly how you’re going to design the facility. There may need to be a volunteer restriction that says ‘this is the only way we’re going to have a terminal,’ whatever that is. No more generalizations. Not, ‘this is what the industry is capable of and we’re going to be regulated by the EPA.’”
Opponents have complained a new terminal will add to dust and runoff problems that have been documented to originate at McDuffie Coal Terminal, a 220-acre facility that has operated on the opposite side of the river for decades.
Wanda Cochran, an attorney who lives and practices downtown, asked the commission not to rely on state or federal environmental agencies to regulate the facility.
“There is no question coal by any measure is a dirty business,” she said, beginning to quote from a Walter Energy brochure. “The adverse impact of dust is limited only by the distance it can travel through the air. ADEM and EPA will have enforcement powers, but it’s not their job to protect general welfare of community.”
The agenda item was held over until the commission’s March 6 meeting. There has been no announcement regarding the public meeting planned by Walter Energy.