Africatown Boat Safari Highlights Hog Bayou’s Mobile-wide Connections
Its rich heritage and ecosystem holds possibilities, perils
July 13, 2015 Mobile, Alabama – Hog Bayou rests atop Mobile to the north of Africatown’s residential neighborhood. The wetland backwaters have been used as a source of food and recreation by Africatown residents since the community’s founding by former African slaves in 1870. Major Joe Womack and other Africatown elders often recount how their relationship to the wetland ecosystem shaped their youth.
Major Womack took such an opportunity last Friday afternoon on a first-of-its-kind boat tour of the Hog Bayou wetlands area. Organized by Africatown Community Development Corporation (Africatown CDC) in partnership with the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association, Mobile Branch of the NAACP, Mobile Bay Sierra Club, and Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) through a generous in-kind donation by Five Rivers Delta Safari, the tour saw 40 participants from partner organizations, Mobile City Planning staff, and press obtain a fresh look at Mobile’s too-long abused wetland ecosystems in its North.
Valerie Longa of Five Rivers Delta Safari led the tour with welcome assistance from the passengers. The trip took passengers from the Mobile Convention Center up the Mobile River to Chickasabogue Creek, whose tributaries flow from as far west as Semmes and as north as Citronelle. Those waters form the Hog Bayou wetlands just before the Chickasabogue spills into the Mobile River, where the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge connects the CSX Intermodal Terminal rail yard downtown to all points north and east of Mobile.
A Truly Industrial Riverscape
As it motored upstream, the boat passed bustling commercial river traffic and the day-to-day drama of a port notorious for exporting fuels with long lists of collateral impacts like coal and wood pellets in addition to its impressive naval weapons manufacturing capacity as evidenced by the USS Montgomery LCS-8 naval combat ship docked at Austal USA’s shipyard.
The boat passed no less than seven above ground petrochemical storage tank farms. The explosion of tank farm activity on the Mobile Riverfront is a relatively new development when contrasted against the hundreds of years the port has been operating. Ones installed in 1976 and today operated by Arc Terminals are amongst the oldest, but most of the others arrived on Mobile flood-prone waterfront within about the last 15 years.
Their fumes afforded no opportunity to ignore their imposing profiles; these facilities release highly toxic varieties of air contaminants into the atmosphere daily too close to neighborhoods, schools, and churches. Many visitors have said the petrochemical odors penetrate downtown Mobile during their visits, which is a real scandal considering that technology exists and is regularly used elsewhere to sequester harmful vapors from storage tanks away from human lungs and the atmosphere.
A Door Opens to Hog Bayou, but What Plans Lie Ahead?
Approaching the Africatown-Cochrane bridge, the safari boat captain called ahead to the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge, rightly named for how its central axis swing action permits larger vessels opportunity to cross the low-pass Mobile & Montgomery CSX Subdivision crossing. Witnessing the bridge turn for the safari boat was a very powerful feeling.
Once past the Kimberly-Clark forest product manufacturing facility, the scene turned placid quickly. A turn westerly into Hog Bayou saw a baby alligator duck under water upon approach. Seagulls swooped as osprey hunted the waters. From its shoreline driftwood perch, a striking anhinga cautiously watched the safari boat glide past. Tour guide, Valerie Longa, helped identify the fauna while sharing much about the others who call the Mobile-Tensaw Delta home.
LS Power’s natural gas power plant provided a constant hum in the Hog Bayou backwaters. Originally constructed by a Shell gas subsidiary and coming online in 2002, the facility was operated by Mobile Energy LLC, a locally-incorporated Calpine Corporation and InterGen partnership, which managed to survive a tough decade for a bankrupted Calpine until last year’s announced sale of the plant to a different set of Houston-based handlers, LS Power. The petrochemical industries are rarely stable for long.
To the south of LS Power an otherwise vacant lot currently owned by the mysterious Hydrocarbon of Mobile LLC since October, 2011 had concrete crushing equipment working away at the foundations left when International Paper shuttered its dioxin-spewing paper mill after 55 years, instead of cleaning up their act. This was the previously proposed location of American Tank and Vessel’s withdrawn permit application to build a 37 tank petrochemical tank farm with 10 new rail tracks, a crude-by-rail loading terminal, a 4-bay tanker truck loading terminal, and a tie-in to the Plains Southcap pipeline connected to Chevron’s Pascagoula Refinery through the watershed of Big Creek Lake, Mobile County’s only drinking water reservoir. The likely operator and ultimate beneficiary of such a site, Plains Marketing LP, operates another Africatown-based tank farm situated on Magazine Point. It was Plains’ pipeline that, in February 2014, dug up the storied baseball field of the Mobile County Training School, Alabama’s first accredited public high school for black students.
After two years of public outcry, the second mayor-convened working group on tank farms, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Planning Commission’s Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tank Farms, recommended a set of zoning guidelines which would ostensibly permit an American Tank and Vessel-style tank farm in Africatown, pending full Planning Commission approval. While some of the Subcommittee recommendations are common sense, others, like the 1000 foot setback from a residential structure, are simply insulting.
Following the public release of the Subcommittee’s flawed recommendations, Africatown residents and MEJAC organizers participated in the publication of a grassroots response called “No Petrochemical Storage Tanks on Our West Bank, A Compendium of Citizen Concerns“, which contains white papers from Mobile-area doctors, Mobile County Health Department leadership, Mobile-area business owners, historic district advocates, and residents uniting to say that the tank farm situation has become untenable and illustrates only the direction in which Mobile should not be headed.
With respect to currently vacant property held by the secretive Hydrocarbon of Mobile, the Africatown CDC has proposed that this property receive remediation funds via the BP RESTORE Act to turn this area, with its Hog Bayou access, into a park, RV camp grounds, and small boat launch. If funded, the Africatown camp grounds would become one of only two public boat launches into the bayous immediately north of Mobile, and the only one in the City of Mobile. The CDC has also proposed a similarly funded comprehensive habitat survey of the entire Hog Bayou wetland area.
A Major Tar Sands Hub in the Making?
After dashing behind the Kemira and Occidental refineries, synthesizing plastics and caustic soda respectively, the safari boat passed a section of pipe jutting above the water line. As the safari exited Hog Bayou and took a northerly turn up Chickasabogue Creek towards the Port of Chickasaw, hardly readable, sun-faded signs on the shore warned barges not to anchor due to underwater pipeline and cable crossings.
The boat’s arrival in the Port of Chickasaw was greeted with the overwhelmingly foul stench of petrochemical volatile organic compound emissions. The tank farms in this part of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta release their toxic vapors untreated into the atmosphere similarly as those along the Mobile River. Both NuStar Energy and Arc Terminals operate petrochemical tank farms in the Port of Chickasaw in addition to their Mobile Riverfront facilities, but Arc Terminals’ Chickasaw facility is quite different than that of its more southerly kin in that it incorporates a rail loading terminal.
The truck traffic from this site travels down Telegraph Road on a daily basis to deliver hazardous products through Chickasaw, Prichard, and Africatown neighborhoods over the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge to the eastern bank of the Mobile River, where Arc’s other tank farms were sited by past Planning Commissions without much regard for the health and safety of those exposed to their fumes. Tanker trucks filled with hazardous petrochemicals routinely cause accidents or tip themselves over turning onto Bay Bridge Road, a major arterial highway that bisected Africatown and saw neighborhoods condemned and residents removed from their homes for ‘progress’; as was the case along Tin Top Alley, which industrial developers recently proposed for a used military equipment junk yard.
Floating in the Chickasabogue Creek, the safari passengers could clearly see Arc’s huge black tanks labeled “crude condensate”. This by-product of the shale oil and gas fracking process is used as the diluent constituent of diluted bitumen aka tar sands, or as its known when delivered via rail, ‘railbit’. At one point, Arc Terminals had a vision for Mobile which included receiving railbit tar sands via trains from the Alberta tar sands mines. Those trains would be sent back to Canada filled with the crude condensate diluent to use in the production of more railbit tar sands, effectively turning Mobile into a major hub of tar sands via rail. So complete was their vision that they were already marketing their plans in February 2013 at the First Annual Crude-By-Rail Summit in Houston, Texas.
Indeed, it was the widespread outrage generated by the public disclosure of these plans that precipitated the City of Mobile’s two year above ground tank farm zoning saga. Discussion began with former Mayor Sam Jones designating the first mayoral working group on tank farms referred to as the Ad-Hoc Committee on Above Ground Storage Tanks to explore city-wide regulations on the industry. The Ad-Hoc Committee’s recommendations were widely seen as very reasonable, but current Mayor Sandy Stimpson disagreed with their conclusions enough to form another working group, the Planning Commission Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tanks, to review the Ad-Hoc Committee’s recommendations and develop plans more in-line with his administrative vision for Mobile. Mayor Stimpson’s appointed Planning Commission will be holding hearings on the Subcommittee recommendations soon.
Should zoning regulations ultimately be adopted that forbid the construction of an American Tank and Vessel-styled tank farm at the old Industrial Paper site, other properties slightly further away from Africatown but still accessible by pipeline, rail and truck like the International Paper North and Alabama State Port Authority lands on either side of Hog Bayou may ultimately be pursued.
In that case, Chickasaw’s Gulf Street Alley neighborhood, which is, like Africatown, surrounded by heavy industry would be just as close to an International Paper North tank farm and intermodal petrochemical loading terminal. MEJAC has stated its interpretation of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice mission and would not support the siting of these facilities anywhere near any neighborhood in the Greater Mobile Bay region.
Leaving the Port of Chickasaw down Chickasabogue Creek, safari guide Valerie pointed out a “huge osprey nest” to the wowed passengers. It was clear that despite appearing industrialized on aerial maps, the Hog Bayou wetlands still brims with an untamed wilderness.
Africatown’s Isn’t the Only Tar Sands Threat
At the height of controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands mining corporations were considering options as pipeline capacity experienced bottlenecks. Arc Terminals took advantage of the political atmosphere in February 2013 by marketing its expanded petrochemical vision of Mobile as a major railbit tar sands hub. Unit trains of tar sands started arriving shortly thereafter from the Canadian tar sands mines, parked as otherwise unexamined above ground storage behind the historic GM&O Building at the Canadian National Railway (CN) terminal downtown. Within 500 feet of the Orange Grove Apartments and in immediate proximity to the City of Mobile’s downtown Wave Transit Terminal, Arc and CN had ostensibly partnered to create an expanded intermodal terminal based on their functioning Port of Chickasaw model with much greater capacity and added bells and whistles like a natural gas-fired steam bath to heat crude-by-rail tankers and heated pipelines under the Mobile River to Arc’s East Bank tank farms.
It’s unclear at this point if any of what had been proposed to investors and crude-by-rail shippers came to be financed or completed, but permits were granted by Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Army Corps of Engineers for the under-river pipeline project. Neither Arc Terminals nor CN have been forthcoming to the public.
At the June 30th Mobile City Council meeting, District 2 Councilman Rev. Levon Manzie asked Arc for such clarification but didn’t receive a direct reply. That meeting ultimately resolved that in order to understand where the business was coming from in its proposal for a Sulfuric Acid expansion for one of its East Bank petrochemical tank farms, Arc would prepare a public “science fair” in the next month’s time to explain what its long-term business plans are. At this time, no dates have been set.
In any case, above ground bulk storage via parked railcar of petrochemicals and other hazardous materials hasn’t been justly considered by either of the mayoral tank farm working groups. Citing this facility so close to both the Orange Grove Apartments, De Tonti Square Historic District, and the Wave Transit Terminal when downtown residents and tourists have regularly complained of toxic nuisance odors from the tank farms across the Mobile River from downtown is yet another profound violation of the public trust by Arc Terminals.
A Bomb by Any Other Name
July 6, 2013 saw a crude oil unit train barrel into downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada in the middle of night. The resulting inferno killed 47 people instantly and leveled huge portions of downtown. The blast zone was half a mile wide around the tracks. Insurance claims to date have sought more than $50 million in damages. Discourse amongst those living in direct proximity to rail lines carrying explosive crude-by-rail has since resulted in these trains being labeled “bomb trains” both due to the uniquely volatile contents but also the poorly-designed tanker cars themselves. In response, this year’s second annual international Week of Action to stop oil trains saw over 100 actions in the largest protest against bomb trains in history.
2013 witnessed 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled by bomb trains, more than the past 40 years combined. In 2014, 57,000 gallons spilled. In response, federal regulators at the National Transportation Safety Board have sought to review transport options in concert with their Canadian counterparts. Tens of thousands of public comments in favor of taking the antiquated DOT-111 tanker cars off the tracks were considered.
In the end, the standards announced May 1, 2015 fell far short of expectations, leaving many questions unanswered. DOT-111s will be discontinued for the transport of Bakken crude and ethanol, but will remain in service for railbit tar sands and presumably other volatile and hazardous rail traffic as well, despite documented derailment-caused tar sands explosions like that which occurred near Gogama, Ontario on February 14 this year and the fact that even rail carriers have largely conceded their dangers.
The explosive nature of transporting railbit tar sands is often overlooked, but tar sands industry groups and their university partners are definitive in saying that tar sands via rail is every bit as volatile as notoriously detonation-prone Bakken shale oil. The reason why lies in the fact that tar sands must be diluted for easy forms of transport. Indeed, it is the addition of diluent that makes it dangerously explosive, yet another unique chemical property of tar sands slurry that industry loves to gloss over when calling it no different than conventional crude oil.
Tar Sands: An Unconventionally Risky Investment
In mid-2014, a downturn in global oil prices due to the glut in US produced fracked shale oil has resulted in many tar sands producers scaling back their extraction and shipping goals. Many tar sands projects have folded altogether resulting in billions of dollars in losses for those careless enough to invest. In fact, tar sands investment advisers have questioned whether or not anything less than $95 per barrel is even economically sustainable, at all. A nuclear deal with Iran is expected to further lower worldwide oil prices.
The DOT-111’s replacement, the DOT-117, is hardly an improvement with its hull being increased to just under a half inch thick to just over a half inch thick. This paltry increase amounts to only a few more miles per hour of puncture protection, at best. For instance, the April, 30 2014 derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia was a train using the updated standard tanker cars. In light of this, many first responders elsewhere, like fire fighters unions, are speaking out against the new “safety” regulations about how unprepared they are should an accident occur. Though the tar sands investment downturn has signaled fewer railbit tar sands bomb trains rolling through Mobile, it doesn’t mean bomb trains aren’t present.
Floating downstream, the Africatown safari boat returned to the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge only to have the safari captain announce that it was occupied. Upon approach, it was clear that it was full of DOT-111 tanker cars carrying a variety of hazardous cargo. The sobering moment illustrated the fact that as long as communities are unjustly targeted for heavy industrial development without their fully-informed consent, they could be put into extremely risky scenarios.
Even if the proposed tank farms with intermodal transport terminals never go forward, Africatown, downtown communities, and those living along arterial train tracks are still at risk from antiquated and dangerous DOT-111 bomb trains and the “upgraded” DOT-117s. Should any of the proposals move forward, it would portend many hundreds more bomb train tanker cars similar to the ones seen crossing Chickasabogue Creek arriving daily in downtown Mobile, loaded with explosive cargo.
Why Tar Sands Infrastructure, Anyway?
Tar sands geological formations are known to be present in North Alabama as the Hartselle Shale. The Alabama Oil and Gas Board is currently developing rules that would define how mining the Hartselle Shale formation should proceed. The formation, which stretches from the Birmingham area all the way northwesterly to the Tri-Cities region, already has extraction companies lined up to start work.
One of those companies, MS Industries has already been fined for waste water permit violations, and mining activities supposedly haven’t even started, yet. If this is the type of company with which Mobile-area rail and tank farm facilities like Arc Terminals and Plains Marketing are willing to partner, it doesn’t spell a very good future for Alabama’s precious Mobile-Tensaw Delta or the watersheds that feed it.
Business, Like Good Governance, Is a Two Way Street
Once the bomb train had passed, the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge opened back into the wider Mobile River, bustling as ever. As the safari passed under the Africatown-Cochrane Bridge one last time, a tanker truck from Telegraph Rd. careened down the East Bank bridge descent towards the Mobile Riverfront tank farms.
Over at Cooper/T. Smith’s Cooper Marine & Timberlands’ terminal, Maryland’s Enviva, one of the largest wood pellet manufacturers in the United States, was busy providing wood pellets to European markets hungry for cleaner-burning fuels but largely ignorant of the devastating consequences unfolding in the rural Southeast US from the extraction of a so-called ‘renewable’ resource – forests.
On both banks of the river at another of Cooper/T. Smith’s energy export facilities and concurrently at the Alabama State Docks, coal was being unloaded from barges rushed downstream from North Alabama. The uncovered Asian market-bound coal blew its toxic dust into the air where nearby monumental cranes greeted manufactured goods from those same markets stuffed inside shipping containers whose resting places on seafaring warehouses were quickly replaced with land roving warehouses aboard diesel truck and rail track. Commerce continued.
As the boat docked again at the Mobile Convention Center and passengers of the first Africatown Hog Bayou Safari disembarked onto solid land, no one doubted the utility of having taken the time for the safari. An opportunity to see otherwise familiar places from new perspectives affords insights into how seemingly intractable problems may yet have solutions, should those seeking be open to them.
In this new era for Alabamian racial justice, every opportunity to relate the incredible stories of Africatown’s residents, historical and present, to the fates and fortunes shared by the larger Mobile population is appropriate. To make Mobile better is to make Mobile more representative of its people who dare to say that one another’s lives matter, even if it flies in the face of the ostensible plans of Stimpson administration appointees. In its pursuit of environmental justice, Africatown lifts all voices seeking redress for historical wrongs that previously wouldn’t seem to right. For that, many in the Mobile Bay region are thankful.
Written by Ramsey Sprague for MEJACoalition.org
Images by Ramsey Sprague, some rights reserved, unless otherwise noted
Take a trip through the Chickasabogue CSX Turn Bridge!