Mobile City Council Delays Vote on Arc Terminals’ Sulfuric Acid Tank Expansion

Mobile City Council Delays Vote on Arc Terminals’ Sulfuric Acid Tank Expansion
Questions Linger over Risk Mitigation and Long-Term Plans at their Tar Sands Tank Farm
by Ramsey Sprague for

JUNE 30, 2015 12:30pm – In a 5-2 vote, Mobile City Council approved District 2 Councilman Levon C. Manzie’s motion to delay an appeal vote on the Planning Commission’s approval of Arc Terminal’s sulfuric acid expansion at their tar sands tank farm by six weeks.

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

Aerial Map of Port of Mobile Petrochemical Bulk Storage Facilities in Relation to Residential Historical Districts and Downtown

Fourteen people testified strongly against the approval including President of the Church Street East Neighborhood Association Greg Vaughn who called for Arc Terminals to host a public information session about their long-term business plans, a sentiment echoed by De Tonti Square Neighborhood Association President Kelly Baker, several MEJAC speakers, and ultimately by Councilman Manzie.

Councilman Manzie found it “totally unacceptable” that someone from Arc Terminals’ leadership wasn’t present to answer questions related to insurance and liability. Arc Terminals was solely represented by Mobile engineer Gary Cowles of Cowles, Murphy, Glover & Associates who initially opposed Councilman Manzie’s suggested delay.

District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson noted that he would’ve voted ‘no’ without more evidence of Arc Terminals’ responsibility with respect to sulfuric acid’s extreme danger supported by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and similar agencies.

Manzie also stated plainly that he couldn’t understand what harm a public information session would be for a company like Arc Terminals if all of their plans were above board and understandable. A meeting like this would have the potential to “change minds”, he said.

Council President Gina Gregory kindly explained to Cowles that a vote today wouldn’t likely result in a favorable outcome for him and his client. Cowles ultimately acquiesced to a delay but only after trotting out in defense of Arc Terminals that Blakeley Island, where this property sits at 1437 Cochrane Causeway, wasn’t included in the Mayor and Council’s “Enhanced Scrutiny Area” explored by the most recent Subcommittee of the Planning Commission on Above Ground Storage Tanks.

The Subcommittee’s report and suggested zoning amendments were roundly rebutted by Mobile-area medical professionals and neighborhood advocates, whose 60-page report “No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns” was released earlier this month.

Many Pressing Concerns Lacked Adequate Reply from Cowles, Arc

The fourteen Mobile residents who spoke all had excellent points independent of each other. Walter Power said there was an emergency situation on June 11 in which a garbage vehicle had become disabled due to a teaspoon of sulfuric acid being tossed in someone’s trash. Suzanne Schwartz noted that the Planning Commission’s pre-approval of all eight tanks on the site was not only unorthodox but irresponsible. Mobile Bay Sierra Club’s Carol Adams-Davis pointed out that many of the tanks in question were built in 1975, before the current international standards for sulfuric acid storage were adopted by bulk storage industry organizations.

De Tonti Square Neighborhood Association President Kelly Baker mentioned how the Port of Mobile was shut down for two whole days in 2011 when Arc Terminals, then known as Gulf Coast Asphalt, spilled nearly 100,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil on their property and an unknown amount into the Mobile River. The company’s name change followed shortly thereafter.

Reminding all that Mobile is still very much involved with a long-term strategic planning process, John Klotz recalled that he never once heard anybody say in any of the planning sessions he attended that Mobile should expand its petrochemical tank farm holding capacity and variety. Quite to the contrary, limiting or doing away with the tank farm industry was brought up repeatedly and received widespread rounds of applause every time.

Along a similar line of inquiry, longtime Africatown advocate Major Joe Womack said he felt very encouraged with Mayor Stimpson’s strategic planning initiatives and how communities from all across Mobile have turned out to express their feelings with one very conspicuous absence – the tank farm industry. Why, if they are so confident that their plans benefit all of Mobile, have they not shown up to participate in any meaningful way, he wondered out loud.

Mobile attorney Pete Burns spoke of a vacant lot he purchased in De Tonti Square to build a historically-styled house upon. He harkened back to the years of campaign dollars spent promoting downtown investment in Mobile, which promised growth based on the “Charleston model”. He said that he was talked into buying a ticket to Charleston but it looks like he might end up in Port Arthur!

Lella Lowe speaking on behalf of MEJAC President Teresa Fox-Bettis noted that a total amount of 3.8 million gallons of sulfuric acid storage was approved by the Planning Commission in a very ecologically sensitive area. She went on to point out that other sulfuric acid storage facilities have contaminated the nearby soil and groundwater by reliance on substandard liners. Barbara Caddell spoke to the need for Arc Terminals and similar industries to have adequate insurance coverage for catastrophic failures.

Conservation Chair of the Mobile Bay Sierra Club David Underhill pointed out that similarly-situated structures on river banks have been damaged by all manner of debris in hurricane storm surges resulting in catastrophic architectural failures. If a similar situation were to occur at Arc Terminals’ sulfuric acid storage, he said, “There would be no fix.”

Bethany Knight Metzger decried the fact that as a downtown real estate agent it is becoming harder and harder for her to ‘sell Mobile’ when it used to be much easier. According to her, people are starting to ask about blast zones and the nuisance odors. Mobile newcomer, Ramsey Sprague, pleaded with council to consider the adverse affects on the already toxically overburdened Africatown community as sulfuric acid trucks would be routed through the heart of the community along Bay Bridge Road to Arc Terminals’ storage facility.

District 6 Councilwoman Bess Rich raised concern with the Planning Commission’s capacity as non-experts to handle such life-threatening decisions. She suggested that petrochemical applicants should pay for outside, independent consultants to prepare comprehensive briefings for staff, Planning Commission, and Council that would answer many of the pressing questions raised by the fourteen speakers.

Multinational Corporations Owe Communities Greater Transparency, Not Less

As Brenda Bolton pointed out in her testimony, Arc Terminals is financed by New York City’s Lightfoot Capital Partners, which is in-turn 58% majority owned by multinational corporation GE Energy Financial Services. Multinational corporations should be held to higher standards of disclosure precisely because they are not rooted in the Mobile community in the same way as a local bakery or tailor.

Should Councilman Manzie’s public information session with Arc Terminals and downtown Mobile residents come to pass, it will quickly become apparent that the long-term plans of Arc Terminals mirrors that of Houston’s Plains Marketing/Southcap/All-American, owner/operator of the 36″ tar sands pipeline running through the Big Creek Lake drinking water reservoir watershed. According to Arc’s publicly available trade documents, they are intensely interested in courting business with Canadian tar sands transporters like CN and CSX Railways, tar sands strip miners like Koch Industries, and major tar sands refiners like Chevron and Valero.

Their vision: Mobile Bay as a major petrochemical hub of the tar sands industry with extremely volatile natural gas condensates arriving from Gulf state shale oil and gas fields to trade places with incoming tar sands from Canada, shipped back on the Canadian corporation-owned tracks in the same antiquated tanker cars referred to commonly as “bomb trains” to become diluent for the diluted bitumen/tar sands slurry only to be railed back to Mobile. Pretty slick, eh?

Despite the fact that GE Energy Financial Services is quick to tout its billions of dollars in investments in solar energy, Mobile Bay and her residents are left to suffer through their investments in the dirtiest and most dangerous of petrochemical industries.

Why is Mobile receiving the most toxic end of the energy investment sector? Why aren’t the plans for the massive petrochemical expansion along Mobile Bay made public to Mobilians to discuss on their earned merits?

These are precisely the kinds of questions that Gary Cowles, Arc Terminals, and their dirty development partners are wary of fielding. But by agreeing to the delay, Cowles and Arc have agreed on shedding some much-warranted light on the situation.

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