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Tank Farm Questions, Conciliations

Petroleum storage at the Port of Mobile has been centered on the west bank of the Mobile River for more than 100 years. Seven area oil storage terminals generate $5.3 million in sales and property tax annually.

Petroleum storage at the Port of Mobile has been centered on the west bank of the Mobile River for more than 100 years. Seven area oil storage terminals generate $5.3 million in sales and property tax annually.

Photo by Breck Pappas

Then there was that time in Mobile when two companies sought to increase the port’s oil storage footprint, at the same time residents were reading reports of run-away trains leveling square blocks with petroleum-fueled fires.

What came next was almost unprecedented in Mobile’s 300-plus years of history. A city founded on its usefulness as a port began asking pointed questions — What’s in those big tanks that dot the waterfront? What danger did they pose? Do we need them?

In 2013, the Mobile City Council created a committee to study and report — and its conclusion suggested that the oil storage business in Mobile might have outstayed its usefulness.

“They came back with one phrase that really got us stirred up,” says Steve Gordon, general manager of Radcliff Economy Marine Services. Gordon is a Mobile native who has worked at the Port of Mobile all his life.

“They wanted our industry to ‘age out,’ written in black and white, and the only thing that means to me is once our tanks wear out, I’m out of business.”

At that point Keep Mobile Growing was formed — an industry group that has grown to 90 companies from the tank industry. The companies support 5,000 local employees, Gordon says.

Next came about a year of campaign-style stumping, with Gordon taking the lead as Keep Mobile Growing’s president, talking to civic groups, organizing facility tours and, specifically, talking to members of Mobile’s AfricaTown community, which stood to see the most encroachment based on the two tank farm proposals that created all the excitement. 

When the smoke cleared, neither tank expansion proposal went anywhere, according to Jarrod J. White, an attorney with Cabaniss, Johnson, Gardner, Dumas & O’Neal, a law firm engaged by the industry group. 

This year, Mobile adopted a compromise ordinance allowing existing tank farms to replace or rebuild tanks but requiring a 1,500-foot setback from residential property in the case of new tank farm projects.

The setback made one of the proposed tank farm sites, a former International Paper parcel, “pretty much unusable,” White says. “The agreement that was hammered out was something industry could live with, that BayKeepers felt comfortable supporting and left AfricaTown feeling like they weren’t being encroached upon.”

The treaty continues to hold, and the oil industry’s continued slack times give it little reason to expand for now.

For the record, the tanks you see dotting the Port of Mobile typically hold either “bunker oil” to fuel big ships or crude oil on its way to one of the four refineries in the area, to be made into gasoline. Either way, it’s a moneymaker. The local refineries carry 10 percent of the nation’s total refining capacity, while each ship that steams into port represents $100,000 in revenue to ship handlers, port agents and related support businesses. 

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