Africatown Remains Overburdened by Polluting Industries, Overlooked by Local Political Leaders


In recent years, Mobile's historic Africatown community has made great strides. It developed its own community plan. Its rich history has been featured in numerous reports by media outlets around the world. And it has organized to advocate for its future and to ensure that future generations are able to continue to live and thrive in the historic community. But despite that progress, Africatown remains an environmental justice community, overburdened by polluting industries and often overlooked by local political leaders. Here are a few issues we continue to confront every day.

Hosea Weaver Asphalt Plant
Twenty years ago Africatown historian and community leader Henry Williams, led a group of 40 Africatown residents to Mobile's City Planning Commission meeting to protest the construction of an asphalt plant being constructed by Hosea Weaver & Sons Inc. on Bay Bridge Cut-Off Road in Africatown.
(Above: dust blows as trucks enter the Hosea Weaver driveway in Africatown.)
It seemed as though the plant was 75 percent complete before its layout and subdivision of the property came before the Planning Commission. Company president Paul Weaver endured criticism from Africatown residents as well as Planning Commission members. When asked why he continued construction even after the city learned of it and issued a stop-work order, Weaver told the commission that he did not stop work because he was fighting at the time to get the permit. When pressed he finally admitted that he really did not have an excuse and that he was the "Goat".
Weaver previously had admitted that he did not think that he needed a permit to build in that area of the city (Africatown). He also said the plant was valued at more than $3 million, but earlier he told the Planning Commission that his company would have invested $7 million in it by the time it is finished. Commissioners voted 4-2 to give preliminary approval to the project. One commission member did not vote and said after the meeting that he had disqualified himself from voting because he had worked with the Weaver Company on the project.
Africatown residents have said that "it's too close, it's noisy and dusty". The permit to build and operate was granted to the Hosea Weaver Asphalt Plant with only one requirement, that a tree planting and landscaping be designed to create a buffer between the plant and nearby residents. The commission required an 8-foot privacy fence and two strips of 16-foot tall trees and shrubs, totaling a width of 40 feet to buffer the businesses and residential property owners that back up to the asphalt plant.
What a joke! Twenty years later, it seems as though no governmental agency has ever audited the Hosea Weaver plant site to see what negative effect it has inflicted upon the community and its residents.
There is no privacy fence only a small chain linked fence. There is no thick planting of trees and plants to prevent dirt, dust, noise and other airborne pollution from negatively affecting residents of the area.
Residents have moved out and torn down their houses to get away from the smell and pollution caused by the Hosea Weaver asphalt plant. Piles of sand, gravel, dirt and other materials are sitting on their yard, uncovered, blowing throughout the Magazine Point neighborhood whenever the wind blows hard. Nothing is covered up, not even during a hurricane. No public air monitors are in the area, so no government agency ever monitors the pollution conditions.
Kemira Chemical Company
Last year, the Kemira chemical plant, located in the Hog Bayou section of Africatown, came close to causing a very serious incident when one of the chemicals used in their production facility nearly exploded, resulting in the evacuation of residents in a nearby neighborhood. The chemical in question, acrylamide monomer 50%, had been stored in a rail tank car. When it was examined, it was determined to have a temperature of over 300 degrees. The safe temperature of a tank car of acrylamide monomer should not exceed 100 degrees. The local fire department was called in and the plant was shut down, all employees evacuated and a small neighborhood north of the incident was evacuated.
Although Africatown residents are closer to the Kemira plant and within the same community as the near fatal incident, no one from Africatown was notified of the danger or evacuated from the area.
Earlier this year, Kemira applied for permission from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to construct a facility that would allow the company to produce its own acrylamide monomer, thus allowing even more of this highly volatile material to be stored within the confines of Africatown.
Mobile, Alabama has very hot weather during the summer months. In its application to ADEM Kemira did not say anything about steps it would take to ensure that this same incident will not repeat at a larger level.
When word got out that Kemira had plans to expand their plant and put the community more at risk, the community demanded a public hearing to express its concerns about the company's proposed expansion. ADEM granted the public hearing but did not allow the hearing to be held in Africatown.
Kemira is located in Africatown and it is Africatown residents who are concerned. Nonetheless, Africatown residents showed up in mass to speak up against the proposed expansion of Kemira. Africatown residents spoke 23 to 2 against the proposed expansion, but ADEM has granted Kemira permission to expand anyway.
The Africatown community has their own plan that the Mobile City Council spent $50,000 to get done and the Mobile City Planning Commission has approved. The community plan states that the residents of Africatown do not want any more hazardous industrial expansion into the community. Approval of Kemira's expansion is a violation of that plan.
Mobile's $2 Billion Bridge Project
In 1974 I left the military and decided to return to Mobile in part because word had been circulated around the country that the Tennessee-Tombigsbee Waterway Project, which took 10 years to complete and cost billions of dollars, would do for Mobile what the Atlanta Airport has done for the city of Atlanta.
Today that waterway is laughed at for being the largest man-made fishing hole in America. Later, I saw Mobile spend millions of dollars to improve the municipal airport in West Mobile, when everyone in their right mind knew that the airport should have been relocated at Brookley Field, where large airplanes could land, thus turning our airport into an international airport.
Mobile now trails smaller cities such as Gulfport and Pensacola in flights available and pricing. A few years ago, Mobile spent $65 million in taxpayers dollars to build a museum on the downtown waterfront dedicated to merchants and shipping in Mobile. Less than a year later the doors to that museum were closed due to lack of visitors. Because of the aforementioned and other questionable decisions made by those that have been entrusted to keep mobile financially solvent, I do not have much confidence in projects that claim they will have a huge positive impact on Mobile - especially when these projects usually end up having a negative impact on the historic Africatown community.
One issue is the traffic problem, which Mobile does not have. Mobile has two hours of peak traffic periods twice a day, and even then only three or four streets in Mobile are congested. During the summer months there is traffic going to the beaches on Friday and coming back from the beaches on Sunday. Yes, traffic does back up whenever there is an accident in the tunnel, but accidents happen all over the world and will continue to happen. If you want to see real southern traffic go to Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham or Nashville. In those southern cities, traffic begins at 5 am and lasts until 10 pm. I know, because I drove 18-wheelers for 11 years.
Now a proposed new toll to pay for a proposed new bridge over Interstate 10 could divert between 15,000 and 50,000 vehicles a day through the Africatown community. Alabama Department of Transportation studies show that if a toll were implemented to help pay for this $2 billion boondoggle of a bridge, drivers would reroute their trips through Africatown to avoid paying tolls.
This type of traffic flow will inflict unnecessary harm upon Africatown residents. The increased traffic flow will make it more dangerous for residents to move in and out of the community freely. Noise and air pollution problems will increase.
Right now, there are no pollution monitoring devices in Africatown. Once again, the city of Mobile has chosen Africatown, a historic and underserved community, as a place to dump its unwanted problem (traffic) and make Africatown residents bear the burdens of this $2 billion dollar project.
Because of the physical and environmental harm the implementation of the toll will inflict on our historic Africatown community, Africatown residents are demanding a percent of that toll be directed into an account for the improvement and upkeep of the community.