FOX10 News Investigates: Coal Uncovered, Part 1

Some residents worry coal dust stored at two major coal terminals downtown is blowing off the piles and into their community. (FOX10 News)

FOX10 News Investigates is getting answers about claims from residents that coal dust has become a nuisance and a possible health hazard in downtown Mobile.

"If you see what is accumulating on a base layer, then what am I inhaling?" said DeTonti Square resident Sarah Bohnenstiehl.

FOX10 News Investigates put those concerns to the test, and hired an independent laboratory to sample areas across the downtown community to test for the presence of coal dust.

But, that's not all.

In searching for answers about the coal industry on the Mobile River, FOX10 News found one manager at a local coal terminal had some contradicting remarks about the coal dust problem.

The vice president of marketing for the Alabama State Port Authority, which runs the McDuffie Coal Terminal, said on camera that there is no issue with coal dust.

However, when she knew she still had a live microphone on, but was turned away from our cameras, she said something else.

Is coal dust truly a problem downtown? What are state and local leaders doing about it? Are your tax dollars paying to pollute downtown? Those questions addressed in a FOX10 News Investigation: Coal Uncovered.

Community uproar prompts lawsuit

There are two coal dust terminals currently operating along the Mobile River - Cooper Marine and Timberlands (CMT), a privately owned facility, and McDuffie Coal Terminal, which is run by the Alabama State Port Authority with your tax dollars.

Some residents have filed suit against CMT and the City of Mobile over the concern for coal dust pollution downtown. The McDuffie terminal was not included in the suit.

CMT, along with the city of Mobile, was targeted in the lawsuit, because the city recently granted CMT's expansion request.

When Mobile allowed CMT to expand its coal handling facility, residents felt the city did not take the necessary precautions to make sure the coal would be properly contained.

"I think it is trespassing, and it's a nuisance," said attorney Pete Burns, who represents those residents, "and I think they're negligent not to control their coal dust when they're operating close proximity to populated areas."

He feels the city should take further action to force Cooper Marine and Timberlands to prevent its coal dust from polluting downtown.

In the suit, the residents are not asking for any monetary pay-off. Instead, they want to see the city make ordinance changes to further regulate local coal terminals. Doug Anderson is an attorney for the city of Mobile. He doesn't think there's a problem, or any need for the city to make a change. "For the plaintiffs to win their lawsuit, they have to prove that the planning commission and the city council acted arbitrarily or capriciously in approving the cooper facility. That didn't happen, the city followed all regulations and ordinances, and all the requirements were followed," said Anderson.

A spokesperson with Cooper Marine and Timberlands only said, “No comment.”

Tax dollar-funded coal terminal, how does it contain the coal?

Down the river sits another major coal import and export facility, one of the largest coal terminals in the nation, and it is run by the state of Alabama, with taxpayer money. The Alabama State Port Authority's McDuffie Coal Terminal deals with at least 13.9 million tons of coal each year.

We asked to take a look at the facility ourselves, to learn more about what measures it takes to prevent the coal dust from blowing away from the facility.

On a boat tour of the port of Mobile, Judy Adams, Vice President of Marketing for the Port Authority, was our guide.

She said McDuffie has no environmental impact; “it’s all contained,” said Adams during the tour.

"We do know what we do, and we spend millions in infrastructure, both from rain birds, misting systems, transition systems, storm water collection systems, everything to ensure that our coal is kept in the 500 acre facility," said Adams.

After that tour was over, and the FOX10 News Investigative Team was back in the newsroom reviewing the footage for this report, we discovered Adams had made a phone call, while still wearing the live mic, as we were beginning our tour on the boat.

Standing next to the boat's captain, Adams made the following phone call:

"Hey, it's Judy, how are you? Are you in the office today? Okay. I got WALA with me, their story is on coal and the petroleum. I'm getting blindsided, but it's not a big deal, I'm going to be able to handle it. But, we're going down to McDuffie terminal in the boat, in Terry's boat, we're going to take care of petroleum first, but we're going to be headed your way. Could y'all just have your folks check the house, make sure that with these south winds, we don't have coal blowing off of piles and that every thing's wet? You are so great, because they do have cameras. *laughs* Right. Thank you. Give me a timeline, because I got to tell brad. 20 minutes, 20 minutes. Alright, thank you. Bye."

FOX10 News Investigates followed up with Adams and the Port Authority's CEO, Jimmy Lyons, about that phone call.

"That's normal," Adams said after hearing the playback of the phone call. "That's normal, I would have asked that. It had turned out that Brad already had them running that day, because the systems were up and running. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't do that. No, I'm perfectly okay with that."

Adams went on to say, "that is my job, to make sure that for whatever reason the system is not running, that it is. It is just part of what I do, and I don't think that it reflects poorly on us at all. I think if anything it shows that we are diligent and we do care about it."

Downtown dust samples put to the test, under the microscope

As for some residents living nearby, there's a feeling the McDuffie facility isn't doing everything it could to protect them.

"You can get easily discouraged, because it seems like, this is something that should not be present," said Church Street District resident Tom Loehr, "and it's just frustrating when it seems to go on, and on, and on, and on."

Bohnenstiehl agreed.

"If it's something that can be prevented by human error, or human causes, we should fix that," she said.

We heard their concerns, so FOX10 News Investigates put it to the test. We wanted to know, is coal dust really a problem downtown?

To see the results, and view an interactive map that showcases the areas we sampled, click here for Part 2 of FOX10 News Investigates: Coal Uncovered.

All content © 2016, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.

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