Planning Commission Betrays Communities Seeking Environmental Justice with Weak Ordinance

Mobile, Alabama’s grassroots environmental justice fight isn’t about “jobs versus the environment”. It is about an inclusive municipal planning process versus well-oiled advertising campaigns, cronyism, and misinformation coming straight outta Houston. But it’s 2015, we need not poison people or degrade their property in order to prosper. Much of downtown Mobile’s tourism industry, as well as public health officials and community advocates agree with this sentiment.

The zoning ordinance proposed by the Planning Commission on above ground petrochemical storage tanks is an insult to residents, property owners, and breathers everywhere – but particularly to Africatown’s many historical significances. Throughout the last two and a half years of trying to be heard clearly, downtown communities have organized together to consistently say “No More Petro Tanks on Our River Banks”. Given the size and scope of what has been previously proposed, the passion and commitment that communities bearing the brunt of the locally-unwanted land use are displaying is unprecedented for Mobile.

On January 20, 2014, The City Council formed the Citizens’ Industrial Zoning Advisory Committee (CIZAC) to “develop recommendations to the Council relating to the issue of whether the zoning ordinance and the chart of permitted uses should be amended to limit the construction or development of above- ground oil or petroleum storage tanks within the Enhanced Scrutiny Area.”

Public Hearing Flyer 2

The Planning Commission was then to look at the CIZAC’s recommendations and develop language for an ordinance. Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) membership has been involved in almost every public deliberation held in the last two years, and it’s shocking to us that the Planning Commission’s Subcommittee on Above Ground Storage Tanks appears to have stripped most of the CIZAC’s decent recommendations.

Dirty energy lobby groups like the so-called Keep Mobile Growing group have been in the press condemning this weak ordinance outright, suggesting that petrochemical bulk storage tanks need no local oversight at all, suggesting that the “industry standard’ of an 82 foot setback from a house is good enough. That ludicrous argument makes it seem as though these rules must be okay, because something is better than nothing.

Well… these regulations don’t address many of the bottom-line concerns that community members have about how these kinds of tanks and industry, generally, impact the value of their private property and how the toxic vapor emissions from petrochemical storage tank facilities impact the health and well-being of those living downwind from them. You won’t see doctors in the media saying that tank farms in neighborhoods like Africatown are good for public health. Keep Mobile Growing has no doctors willing to do that, and, in fact, they don’t want to talk about health at all. But we have doctors. Nor do they intend to talk about property values in any honest way other than to say that they wouldn’t live 82 or even 1,000 feet from a petrochemical tank farm…

What if this were your neighborhood?

Here are some of our critiques on specific sections of the Planning Commission’s proposed ordinance, as written (download at this link to follow along):


Defining the minimum capacity that triggers this set of regulations at 10,000 gallons is short-sighted and was addressed as such in the deliberation process. At the unveiling of the Subcommittee’s report to the full Planning Commission in May, Commissioner Thomas Doyle raised the concern that tank farm applicants might try to game the system by submitting plans where all tanks were less than 10,000 gallons in capacity. A tank farm with 40 8,000 gallon tanks should be regulated due to the total of 320,000 gallons of material it would have on site and its volume of emissions.

The total capacity of an above ground petrochemical storage tank site should also trigger regulation and not just the volume per tank.


The City Council’s Citizens’ Industrial Zoning Advisory Committee (CIZAC) recommended much more robust reporting, notification, and public hearing processes for democratizing access to Mobile’s planning process. They said:

  • Notification should be made for residents and property owners within 1,500 ft, including making access to Spill Prevention Control and Continuance plans readily available for notified persons
  • An improved website for resident participation should be developed
  • 311 should have notifications for industrial projects by zip code and case #
  • Petrochemical tank & other hazardous materials applicants should provide a public informational meeting upon the written requests from 5 citizens
  • Impacted residents and resident coalitions could request Community Safety trainings with fire and law enforcement personnel to discuss a project’s potential hazards, including the project’s Spill Prevention Control and Continuance plan


15 days prior to an initial hearing is too short a window of time for projects of such magnitude for working community members to be able to attend downtown decision-making meetings during the work week.

More time should be given for notifications.

Section 1K 3(b) – WHO GETS NOTIFIED:

With no vapor recovery, the harmful vapors from petrochemical tanks are smellable for miles around tank farms. 1,000 ft from the proposed tank is far too small of an impact zone to consider for public notice.

Those living within a mile of a proposed project should receive notice.


Measuring from the proposed tank to a property line effectively limits almost all notifications going to neighborhoods living perilously close to industrial zones and would ensure that those being notified of proposed petrochemical tanks are only the most neighboring of property owners, typically other industrial properties.

Measurement for notification purposes should be set from the edge of the I-2 property to the edge of neighboring properties.


In addition to newspaper notifications, certified letters to neighboring property owners, and CIZAC’s recommendations, signs should be posted along the main right of way that a proposed petrochemical tank sits on, inviting public comment.

Where are Keep Mobile Growing’s doctors saying petro tank emissions are safe?

Doctors and scientists have concerns over ongoing exposure to above ground petrochemical storage tank emissions, which are released as tanks are filled and emptied. These fumes are the sources of the terrible oil- or asphalt-like stench that regularly saturates Mobile’s downtown communities.

According to board-certified Pediatrics and Medical Genetics Physician Dr. W. Wertelecki, M.D., “[p]etro-chemical pollutants are premier causes of miscarriages, birth defects, mental retardation, neurologic, respiratory disorders, childhood leukemia, and cancer. It is well documented that air, water, soil pollution and ozone levels in Metropolitan Mobile already are severe and that when permissible ozone levels are lowered in the near future, industrial expansions in Mobile may become limited. Risks associated with petro-chemicals relate to chronic leaks and transportation accidents.”

Board-certified Neurological Surgeon Dr. Bert Park, M.D. had this to say about petrochemical tank farms’ toxic vapor emissions:

“Having recently returned to Mobile after a 35 year absence, I have become increasingly concerned with the proposal to place above-ground petroleum storage tanks near vibrant residential areas. As a physician (neurological surgeon), I am also familiar with the closures of pulp mills during the 1990s, mandated in large measure because of justifiable health concerns. Not only did the surrounding area experience a striking increase in hematologic cancers (i.e. lymphoma and leukemia among the young in particular); I well recall the noxious fumes emitted by the mills during the period of my former residence here in 1980. I mention the latter, because having come from Kansas City where above-ground storage tanks of all sorts were plentiful virtually precluded any residential development near them for the same reason.

Mobile is currently experiencing a resurgence in restoration architecture, both residential and commercial, near the very area of the tanks’ proposed placement. In my view that will be counterproductive to such vital ongoing development. Yet speaking as a physician, an even more important concern is the well-documented health-care issues associated with shale and crude oil chemical contamination, whether in the air, water, or ground soil. Both types of oils contain significant concentrations of benzene (among other deleterious by- products), well recognized to be carcinogenic for humans.

Despite assurances that the possibility of untoward occurrences is allegedly slight should zoning ordinances be modified to accommodate petrochemical storage tanks near residential areas on the West Bank, the recent track-record nationwide tragically affirms that accidental leaks, spills, and explosions are on the rise—and strikingly so. If located in the area proposed, the so-called “collateral damage” would not only be immense, but would have longstanding negative repercussions on the environment.”

What excuse is there that the Planning Commission completely ignores concerns of prominent physicians and gives community members this:

Section 1K 4(b) – TOXIC VAPOR CONTROL:

CIZAC recommended “the best available odor control technology” be utilized, but the concern with vapor emissions from petrochemical storage tanks goes beyond odor. Mobile’s public health officials and downtown business leadership have released statements condemning the chronic exposure to petrochemical fumes from the storage tanks already lining the Mobile River that downtown communities often smell several times a week. Downtown certainly doesn’t deserve any MORE.

Mentioning the possibility of federal regulations is nice, but there are no federal regulations that cover above ground petrochemical storage tank vapor emissions outside of Clean Air Act (CAA) State Implementation Plans, which are unique for regions in noncompliance with the CAA. State of Alabama has none, either. Mobile has a right, written into the CAA, to protect public health by setting local air quality standards higher than the CAA’s minimums.

Emissions common to crude oil include volatile organic compounds linked to respiratory diseases and more exotic and dangerous chemicals like benzenes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are linked to cancers and birth defects and have no safe level of exposure.

Downtown communities, including Africatown, deserve vapor capture technology on bulk petrochemical storage tanks to protect public health.


CIZAC originally suggested that “New petroleum tank developments should not be built within 1500 feet to 1⁄2 mile of residential community, private property, private businesses, schools, public places, historic structures or historic districts.”

A 1,000 ft setback from the “nearest habitable residential structure, church or, school” would still, by the ordinance, allow tanks at the old International Paper site in the Africatown community. Also, by defining the trigger for the setback to be a structure, and not a “residential zone”, it invites the purchase and liquidation of residential buildings for the purpose of creating a suitable setback.

MEJAC supports a dramatically stronger setback requirement for residentially zoned property like Africatown and other downtown neighborhoods, recognizing that Africatown overwhelmingly doesn’t want any more tanks.


“Any portions of the Facility Response Plan that contain information that . . . the applicant otherwise considers potentially sensitive, shall be redacted.” Sensitive to whom? What justification other than Homeland Security requirements is there to deny information related to emergency responses?

There’s no need for this kind of language when it could be argued to be a catch-all phrase providing legal protection from disclosures that are not required by national security, at all.


During the deliberation process, concerns were raised by Planning Commissioners about changes to petrochemical tank contents that have higher flammability ratings than crude oil, as recognized by NFPA 30 Classifications. It was argued that changes that increase flammability should require reapplication or public notice of some degree.

However, the ordinance was never changed to reflect that concern. As written, petrochemical companies could just drop a note by the office to bring more explosive petrochemicals than crude oil into neighborhoods. No oversight necessary.

If oil is compromising anyway, given the explosive nature of Bakken crude oil and tar sands diluted bitumen, storing more highly-flammable substances may expose a community to a higher degree of risk than it desires. Oversight, or at least a plan that recognizes that risks posed by different grades of petrochemicals post varying degrees of danger to neighboring communities, should be provided in instances of the storage of explosive materials in proximity to schools, churches, and homes.


The Enhanced Scrutiny Area (ESA) was set small to deliberately exclude consideration of the dozens of petrochemical tanks already operating primarily along the riverfront. During deliberations, critics on every side thought that was short-sighted and sought to expand the scope and consideration. Puzzling arguments as to why any potential ordinance needed to only apply to the ESA area were made, but…

This ordinance proposes grandfathering all existing bulk petrochemical tanks outside of the ESA as “conforming uses” without any mechanism of oversight. CIZAC recommended only grandfathering existing petrochemical storage tanks until “a change in use, a reconstruction of over 50% of the existing development, an abandonment of operations for one year, or an expansion of capacity will constitute new construction requiring re-application.”

Section 1K 7(b) also states that an increase in capacity alone is an appropriate metric by which to determine whether public notification or permit reapplication is warranted. This is again inadequate, because changes to the site or its contents could be dramatic with no oversight, as proposed by Section 1K 6.

Either apply the ordinance’s provisions to all of the city’s bulk petrochemical tanks or only apply them to the ESA and leave others out of the discussion.



CIZAC recommended bonding and insurance requirements that considered catastrophic failure consideration. This ordinance doesn’t even address bonding, insurance, or even responsibility in the case of catastrophe, opening the door to claims of indemnity by tank farm operators or clients should a disaster occur, leaving taxpayers to foot their bills. Mobile is still suing BP… Haven’t we learned this lesson the hard way?


The remedy for violations, as we witnessed with Arc Terminals’ illegal sulfuric acid storage scheme, is inadequate considering the real risks to health, well-being, quality of life, employment, and the environment. This ordinance has no specific remedies, whatsoever, meaning that non-compliant tank farm operators or clients would face a slap on the wrist if they were caught.


CIZAC recommended that “the Council create a new Africatown Heritage Protection Buffer Zone in the portion of the ESA surrounding Africatown, that provides a 1⁄2 mile transitional buffer that will be rezoned “I-1 Heritage Buffer”, in order to protect the historical character of the area, provide a transition buffer from I-2 industry to residents/schools/community gathering places there, and make appropriate redevelopment use of former I-2 heavy industrial and/or Brownfield sites.” NONE of that language is included or considered anywhere…

Given the impact, the Commission should adopt a Petrochemical Heritage Buffer for all historic districts in the city – INCLUDING AFRICATOWN.

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