Tar sands plan moving forward in Alabama

After leaving the Extreme Energy Extraction summit this month, our organizers were able to scratch a curiosity we’ve had for a long time. We find ourselves calling Utah home to “the first tar sands mine in the United States” but only hesitantly because we know others projects are underway.

Another major hot spot of US tar sands development is northern Alabama. On our way there, we explored the history of environmental racism in southern Alabama, a presumed site where Alabama tar sands would be exported and refined.

There we me the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, a grassroots group that got together originally to protect their municipal water source from a Chevron oil pipeline. That effort was unsuccessful, but it left in its wake an organized group of people better ready to resist the next threat.

That next threat is an effort to place tar sands storage tanks right in the historic neighborhood of Africatown. Storage tanks release significant amounts of benzene and other toxins and are also lightning rods that create time bombs to environmental catastrophe in the event of fire and explosion. The tanks would store no only diluted bitumen from Alberta—the fossil fuel used to make liquid fuel and other products—but also the dilutant chemicals that must be transported to the Alberta mine fields.

Africatown is home to the descendants of the last African people brought to the US as slaves. In 1860—about 100 years after the transatlantic slave trade had been abolished—illegal slave traders made one last evil run between the continents. In the confusion of the civil war, the people who escaped that slave ship never were enslaved and settled the community no known as Africatown.

No strangers to environmental racism, the elders of Africatown remember decades past when the neighborhood was a garden city and seafood was abundant. But then a mid-century paper mill came to the city bringing air pollution, water devastation, and a boom/bust economy that encircled Africatown in the mainstream economy.

Popular resistance to the tank farm plans have taken hold. The city of Mobile is simultaneously considering a plan that would place storage tanks closer to downtown and also taking suggestions that they rewrite their master plan to create great safety for residents from everyday industrial pollution and occasional catastrophes. The city government seems poised to debate these matters for months to come and our new friends at the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition will surely be there to oppose these plans every step of the way.

This spat over tar sands storage tanks prefigures how Mobile would play into a regional plan involving northern Alabama-Mississipi-Kentucky tar sands. Basically, it would be an export hub and storage base.

But up north—near Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama—families are facing the potential of being ‘enfenced’ and encircled by a looming tar sands strip mine.

A company called MS Industries has for years been taking core samples and even purchasing farms. Word has it they’ve bought already 2,000 acres and the farmers who have not sold yet wonder if they’ll have a strip mine backing right up to their back property.

Peaceful Uprising met with people of that area who have organized music events and public hearings to oppose the mining plan. These people want to preserve their rural communities, protect the watershed from inevitable contaminants posed by tar sands mining and find a new energy economy.

Watch a video discussing the MS Industries plan here:

Paradise or Profit from Southern Environmental Law Cntr. on Vimeo.