The petroleum product storage industry has an estimated $687 million economic impact on Mobile County each year, according to a study commissioned by the Mobile Chamber of Commerce.
But, at what cost?
Many locals fear the industry is detrimental to their health, and want to see stricter regulations imposed, but those calls to action against an industry that’s been in place for some 100 years on the Mobile River have not been met with open arms.
Residents in the Africatown community, north of downtown Mobile, worry the massive storage tank farms nestled along the river are emitting dangerous chemicals into their air.
They call it toxic trespassing.
“The community needs to be made aware of what is going on in our community, and let us be involved in decision making,” said Ruth Ballard, who has lived in Africatown for almost her entire life.
Her friend, Joe Womack, an Africatown native who lives in Mobile, feels the same.
“The public should be protected from those vapors as much as possible,” he said.
So, FOX10 News did some digging to find out what kinds of hazards communities near the tank farms could be facing.
Online records kept in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database detail pollution information from each of the seven petrochemical storage facilities currently operating on the Mobile River.
In 2014, Alabama Bulk emitted 3,245 pounds of toxic chemicals, including benzene and ethylbenzene, which are known to cause cancer, and n-hexane, which the EPA says can cause damage to the body's nervous system.
That's down from 10 years ago, when the facility emitted more than 25,000 pounds of toxins, according to the ECHO database.
In 2007, EPA records show the facility paid a penalty of $15,500 because "300 barrels of crude oil escaped."
The facility also has a documented EPA violation from 2013.
Jeanne Phillips, a spokeswoman with the facility’s owner, Hunt Refining, declined to answer specific questions about its air emissions, and only offered the following written statement:
“Alabama Bulk Terminal (ABT) was purchased by Hunt Refining Company in 1991. Since that time the policies, procedures, programs and standards used at the facility ensure it is operating in a manner that is protective of personnel, considerate of the environment and respectful of the communities in which the company works. Our operations continue to meet or exceed the industry's best practices and the company maintains outstanding environmental, health and safety performance and compliance with regulatory requirements.”
The Plains All American petrochemical storage facility in Africatown has the most chemical emissions of all seven facilities.
The most recent recording comes from 2011, when the company's facility emitted more than 230,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, including the carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and benzene.
The facility also has a recorded EPA violation just last summer.
Plains declined to comment. However, someone familiar with the terminal explained the violation was issued, because the company failed to report new storm water pumps it had purchased for the facility.
After our story aired, Plains claimed that the 230,000 pounds emissions figure included emissions that are not considered Hazardous Air Pollutants by the federal Clean Air Act and by the EPA. Plains provided the figure of 5,780 pounds of Hazardous Air Pollutants and provided us the chart below. Pollutant 2011 Emissions (NEI) 2,2,4-Trimethylpentane 395.00 Benzene 1,621.00 Cumene 47.60 Ethylbenzene 128.80 Formaldehyde .20 Hexane 1,518.60 o-Xylene .00 Toluene 1,637.80 Xylene 431.00 Total HAP Emissions 5,780.00 Martin Energy Services emitted six pounds of toxic chemicals into the air in 2014, including the potentially cancer-causing ethylbenzene and polycyclic aromatic compounds. That’s down from 2011, when the company emitted some 3,000 pounds of toxins into the air, according to a graph on the ECHO database.
The company also has two reported violations since 2014.
When FOX10 News called Martin Energy for an interview to find out what those violations were for, a staff member said "we don't do that."
Keep Mobile Growing (KMG) is an organization that advocates for port-related industries in the city. A spokesperson with the organization issued the following statement to FOX10 News about the petroleum storage industry on the Mobile River.
“KMG is comprised of more than 90 Mobile businesses committed to generating awareness and appreciation for the critical network of port-related industries, trades, and family-owned businesses, and to building Mobile’s and Alabama’s competitive marine-based trading advantage. Our members include many of the above-ground storage terminal operators in the area.
Petroleum storage terminals at the Port of Mobile have operated safely within our community for more than 100 years. The above ground storage terminal operators in Mobile take the safety of their employees and area residents very seriously. Because of that, they have invested tens of millions of dollars over the last five years to enhance the safety and integrity of their facilities and the surrounding infrastructure, making these facilities safer today than they’ve ever been before. These companies have personnel whose sole function is to help ensure the safe operation of the facilities and their employees.
The above-ground storage tank industry is highly regulated, and these facilities strive to operate in compliance with local, state and federal regulations and permitting requirements. Under these regulations, operators are required to submit reports to regulators for continued compliance, including the reporting of emissions to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and, in some cases, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To remain in compliance with permits and the associated regulations, terminal operators take the necessary steps to keep emissions within permitted levels.
The local petroleum terminals are an important part of our nation’s energy infrastructure. They supply product to regional refineries that generate the gas that Mobilians use in their cars every day.
The petroleum industry and commerce at the Port of Mobile is also critical to the region’s continued economic health. Together, the seven petroleum storage operators at the Port of Mobile generate more than $680 million in annual economic impact and pay millions of dollars annually in local taxes. In addition, many of these operators have spent time and resources building relationships and supporting community organizations near the terminals, including the Mobile County Training School and local Africatown groups.
Unfortunately, there still remains a great deal of misinformation and false fear about this industry. Keep Mobile Growing will continue our mission to educate the community on the facts about this industry and its importance to our Port and region.”
A spokesperson with Plains told FOX10 News that statement above would serve as its statement, as well.
Two chemical spills in less than a year
It's not just the toxins that are going into the air. The companies are also recorded for polluting the Mobile River, as well.
According to the United States Coast Guard National Response Center, a spill incident was reported just a few months ago at World Point Terminals on the Cochrane Causeway.
The report says, "Caller is reporting a valve released 300 gallons of ultralow sulfur diesel fuel to containment due to equipment failure."
And, at Arc Terminals down the road, the National Response Center lists a spill incident from December 2015.
That report says, "The caller is reporting a release of methanol due to equipment failure. The caller stated that while conducting their annual pressure test the failure occurred resulting in the spill. The impact is the Mobile River."
Arc Terminals General Manager, Allen Rentz, released the following statement about the spill:
"In December 2015 Arc performed a standard safety test where we increase max pressure on our primary and secondary lines to reveal any failures and ensure safety. These safety tests are intended to identify any weaknesses by pressurizing the lines at multiples above our standard operating pressure.
While we successfully reached an increased multiple of our standard pressure in our main lines, a pinhole leak in a secondary line occurred. We immediately secured the line and shut down the test. In this process we lost 25 gallons of Methanol to the Mobile River. We notified the National Response Center. The Coast Guard responded and informed us that the spill was under the reportable quantity and no further action was necessary."
Before Arc Terminals opened shop, the facility was owned by Gulf Coast Asphalt Company (GCAC). EPA records show GCAC paid a $101,500 fine in 2012 for "violations not covered elsewhere."
On the ECHO database, the permit transferred from GCAC to Arc in the buyout is listed as having a violation in 2013, and four violations in 2014.
Permit transfer paperwork filed with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) shows the permit was transferred from GCAC to Arc in 2013.
Rentz submitted the following statement regarding the EPA violation history:
"Arc took ownership of the Mobile facility in 2013 from GCAC and dealt with several issues regarding the transfer of ownership. There is a violation listed for 2014 where we were notified that Arc would be placed in violation status due to a signature missing from a page on the electronic reporting authorization forms we submitted during the ownership transfer. This oversight was later corrected and all reports were property filed going forward."
FOX10 News also reached out to World Point for comment about its chemical spill last year, but have not heard back.
Health concerns reason for regulation or legislation change?
Here's the most alarming statistic.
Reports on the ECHO database show there are more than 2,000 children under the age of five living within three miles of the facilities, and more than 8,000 children under the age of 17.
Despite the documented air and water pollution, the companies are still considered "in compliance" by ADEM.
So, FOX10 News traveled to Montgomery to interview ADEM's Air Division Chief, Ronald Gore, to find out why.
“I'm not a doctor, I'm not a toxicologist, (and) I'm not an epidemiologist,” said Gore. “I depend upon the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether further controls are needed on petroleum storage tanks, or any other air pollution source to protect human health.”
Gore said most other states also rely on the EPA to set their air emissions standards, however FOX10 News found Louisiana, California, West Virginia, and New Jersey set more stringent guidelines on the petroleum storage industry.
A senior environmental scientist with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said the state imposed its own strict regulations on the petroleum storage industry in the 90s, and the regulations mostly focus on chemical vapor controls, put in place in the interest of protecting human health.
FOX10 News asked Gore if Alabama could do something similar, in order to best protect the state’s citizens.
"I have no idea what Louisiana has done, so I can't say what the similar would be,” said Gore.
So FOX10 News asked would legislation to impose more regulations on the petroleum storage industry be something his agency would consider supporting?
"Alabama will push for stronger regulations and legislation when it finds there's a need to do so, but we don't have the type of expertise to do health studies,” he responded.
FOX10 News reached out to the EPA for comment about its regulations in place, but so far, has not received a response.
Casi Callaway with Mobile Bay Keeper said new research is coming out about the possible dangers associated with petrochemical storage tanks.
“Standards may change within OSHA, because they're concerned about workers in the industry being more impacted by oil and gas emissions. So, if that's the case; that will trickle down into going into EPA, and all the way down to our state agencies,” she said. “We firmly believe that if the regulations aren't strong enough to protect public health, we'll go after them and address them."
Health officer: City regulation not tough enough
Callaway helped write Mobile's new ordinance to regulate construction of new petroleum tanks.
Now when facilities want to build new tanks, they must be at least 1,500 feet from homes, and residents living within 3,000 feet must be notified.
Its "grandfather clause" allows companies to build new tanks on their properties without any further community input, and replacement tanks can be built without planning commission approval or community feedback.
Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bert Eichold warned city council members about that clause before the ordinance was approved.
Dr. Eichold worried expansion of the tank farms could pose a bigger threat to the community's health.
“We’re concerned about breathing volatile organic liquids, VOCs. By the National Institute of Health (they) are not beneficial to human health in any way, shape, or form, and all of the petrochemical companies have volatile organic liquids in them,” said Dr. Eichold.
Dr. Eichold said any prolonged exposure to those chemical vapors could put people at risk for getting cancer.
"It's like riding in a car and not wearing your seat belt, you may get away with it one or two times, but overtime, statistically, it's not going to be a good outcome,” he said.
He would like to see tougher standards to further prevent the release of those toxic emissions.
"I think we should pick the states with the highest, and best standards, yes they cost a little bit more, but ultimately, it makes for a healthier and better environment for everyone,” Dr. Eichold explained. “I think the science, knowledge, and common sense should prevail in the industry, and not just simply what's the economic return right now."
Bess Rich was the only city council member who voted against the ordinance. She said a back room meeting produced the controversial grandfather clause at the last minute.
She felt other council members ignored Dr. Eichold's concerns.
“The council in its decision, went with the ordinance that was crafted by lobbyists, attorneys for the oil industry, and for me it was very heavy handed, and it was not the balance I thought the community deserved,” she said.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents Downtown and Africatown, voted “yes.”
He originally sought to draft the ordinance two years ago, because he felt tank farm expansion needed city regulation.
FOX10 News asked Manzie if he felt he had indeed ignored Dr. Eichold’s warning, as Rich alleged.
“No, I don't think we ignored the doctor, but I do believe that even the doctor would be sensitive to the political reality,” he said. “We could have enacted the most stringent requirements in the world if it were up to me, because I represent all of those people, but it takes four other votes besides mine to pass something, so whatever we passed had to pass the political muster.”
In a written statement rebuttal to Manzie’s comment, Dr. Eichold wrote:
“The process for the ordnance was new but The Mobile City Council did respond to the Bully Tactics of industry. What we have is better than nothing but short of the best in the world. I hope the community will review all such laws every 5-10 years and require the implementation of best practices as technology/science/experience evolve and we can observe the human factors at other locations.
We live in a very dynamic time and like with many sad world events complacency resulted in devastating disaster. Just look at Haiti/Ecuador where the grandfather use of construction practices resulted in the loss of life and Chernobyl/Japan where the best nuclear technology was not required to be incorporated. The human factor component when one commercial airline pilot left the flight station while flying over Europe.
Industry does not want to harm people or the environment but greed often impacts decisions. Business needs to make money but they must also safe guard against the unintended consequences and have assets to compensate victims when they fail.”
Residents: "They let us down, they dropped the ball"
Some residents want to see public officials follow Dr. Eichold’s recommendations and implement stronger practices used in other states.
Many want legislation to further regulate the facilities' emissions.
“When you get zero traction with public officials, about public health concerns, it shows a dehumanizing nature of their public service,” said Ramsey Sprague, a downtown Mobile resident and environmental activist with the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC). “Who are they working for?"
FOX10 News showed some local residents the EPA records from the seven facilities along the Mobile River.
“Very much shocked, very much shocked to know that this kind of pollution and stuff has went on in this community, and that we are just now getting a picture of actually how much damage,” said Aundray Lewis, an Africatown resident.
Ballard thanked FOX10 News for making her aware of what's in the air of her hometown, but now she's hoping her elected officials will do something to change it.
"We appreciate you making us aware, I genuinely appreciate you for making us aware of what is going on, because our officials did not let us know,” she said. “They let us down, they dropped the ball."
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