Walter Energy held an open house Thursday in order to answer the community’s questions ahead of a vote by the Mobile Planning Commission to approve a proposed 40-acre coal-handling terminal on the banks of the Mobile River.

Tom Hoffman, vice president of communications for the company proposing to build the Blue Creek Coal Terminal, said the open house was in response to complaints that the company hadn’t provided enough information on the facility.

“We felt that was a fair criticism,” he said.

Walter Energy brought in company personnel, vendors and vendor representatives to answer questions from the public about many aspects of the proposed terminal’s operation.

“(Residents) literally get a chance to go to specialists and kick their tires, so to speak, and ask them questions one-on-one,” Hoffman said of the open house. “It allows citizens to get the information they want.”

The company has also set up a website at www.bluecreekcoalterminal.com, which will provide even more information, Hoffman said.

Chief among the concerns of downtown residents, like local attorney Greg Vaughan, is the disbursement of coal dust the proposed facility will create.

Vaughan, a resident of the Church Street East neighborhood, said a 2007 study done by an independent lab in Chicago at the behest of a group of concerned residents indicated that coal dust made up as much as 40 percent of the substance on the outside of houses in the neighborhood. Vaughan said the dust in question came from a pre-existing coal-handling facility and a new facility would just exacerbate the problem.

“We already have a coal dust problem,” he said. “My concern is it’s going to be worse.”

Hoffman said the Blue Creek facility, which is much smaller than the McDuffie facility, would address those concerns with new technology.

“Most of the dust gets generated when the coal is being moved,” he said. “You don’t get much when the coal is in piles.”

Hoffman argued that much of the substance that is the subject of complaints could come from nearby Interstate 10, as roadways are one of the top sources of dust.

“That black stuff could be little bits of rubber,” he said.

Vaughan said the 2007 study dismissed road particulate and tire-wear particles as causes of the dust.

“That’s pure speculation on behalf of the spokesperson,” Vaughan said. “Don’t just sit back and shoot holes in our report, do your own report.”

Walter Energy has a plan to deal with the dust issue. Hoffman said the company will install 22-gauge, corrugated metal coverings to all of its conveyor belts. In addition, the coal will be sprayed with water and a biodegradable chemical surfactant that will coat the top of the coal piles with a thin crust to keep dust from being kicked up the wind.

The facility will also use relatively new technology for the chutes used to transfer the coal from the conveyor belts. The new “cascading” transfer chutes are about 10 years old, said Dave Wood, of Flexco, a vendor from the Chicago area, and would minimize the amount of dust that gets kicked up from older “free-fall” chutes.

“All I can say is everything that can be done to control dust at the site will be done,” Hoffman said.

Vaughan argues that in addition to being a nuisance, he doesn’t think coal dust can be good for the residents’ health.

Coal dust isn’t the only problem Vaughan sees with this proposed facility. He believes that the existence of the site itself will be a detriment to efforts to encourage residents to move downtown.

“It could possibly decrease property values,” Vaughan said.

The proposed facility will create a total of 75 direct and indirect jobs, as well as jobs in construction and maintenance. Ninety percent of those jobs will go to Alabama contractors, with Mobile-area contractors and vendors getting “commercially reasonable” consideration for the work, meaning if a Mobile company is capable and large enough to do the work, it will get the work, Hoffman said.

Capital investment in the site could total as much as $100 million, and Walter Energy employees at the facility would be paid industry-competitive wages with full benefits, according to information provided by the company.

Vaughan said a group of concerned citizens from the downtown area have compiled a list of more than 1,300 names of residents and small business owners in the area. The group plans to circulate the petition among the members of the planning commission before the Thursday, March 20 meeting.