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Battle over LNG plans continues

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The legal challenges surrounding the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas plant in the works for Tacoma’s tideflats continue to chug through legal reviews.

The Puyallup Tribe sued to stop the plant with the legal argument that the environmental review last year failed to properly address the impacts the plant would have of the salmon-bearing waterway. Specifically, the tribe worries that construction of the facility would churn up the soil at the Superfund cleanup site. That soil could then leak into the waterway and threaten fish runs and the nearby tribal marina.

A critic of the plant has found himself in court to gain information about how the plant’s potential hazards and how the Tacoma Fire Department would respond to a fire or explosion at the plant. City officials were going to release the information, but Puget Sound Energy wants to block the release, arguing that making the plans public could make the facility a target for terrorist attacks. Red Line Tacoma activist John Carlton sought the details so the environmental group could better understand the potential destruction a blast or fire could have on the surrounding area. He questions how a plant that stores 8 million gallons of liquefied natural gas that could expand to 4.8 billion gallons of vapor could possibly not affect its neighbors as PSE claims.

“That is a lot of volume,” he said. “I would be well beyond the fence line.”

Both the tribe and Carlton’s legal arguments faced recent hearings with their outcomes not available by press time. Appeals are likely.

The utility company began the permitting process last fall, following an environmental review by the City of Tacoma. The city’s agreement with PSE calls for the utility to pay $5 million for the renovations of the mothballed fire station at East 11th and Taylor Way to allow for faster emergency response times.

Puget Sound Energy wants to build the $275 million liquefied natural fas facility at Alexander Avenue East. The facility would produce 8 million gallons of chilled and condensed natural gas so that the gas could be used as a cleaner-than-diesel fuel for TOTE cargo vessels that travel from Tacoma to Alaska as well as stored in tanks to use during extreme weather conditions. Natural gas is chilled to minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit and condensed by 600 times to become liquefied. The natural gas would be piped in from East Pierce County, requiring about five miles of new gas lines that would run through Fife and outlining areas.

Construction of the facility would support about 250 jobs, while its operations would generate 18 jobs. The tank itself would be a nickel and steel cylinder that would be covered by two feet of concrete. The project is expected to be operational in 2019.

Critics of the plant worry about the effects of a fire or explosion at such a large storage facility so close to residential areas and high-density manufacturing sites on Tacoma’s waterfront. Natural gas is not explosive as a liquid but becomes flammable only when it expands back into a gas.

The Tacoma Fire Department has not yet received a permit application. That is expected to come later this year and could take several months of review.

The plant would use about 13,000 gallons of water and 15 megawatts of power each day, much lower than the 10.4 million gallons and 400 megawatts the now-dead and unrelated proposed methanol plant that mobilized hundreds of protesters at public meetings earlier this year. But many of those protesters, under the banners of Red Line Tacoma and Save Our Water, have now set their sights on PSE’s proposed facility with similar worries, namely fires, explosions and leaks.

Dueling maps by environmental groups and the Puyallup Tribe suggest a “blast zone” around the planned plant would be about three miles. PSE maps suggest an impact area of about 550 feet, within the fence line of the plant.

“A collapse of the tank roof and a fire would be similar to lighting a can of sterno,” PSE states about the site. “There will be no explosion, but the entire surface of LNG would burn and would continue to burn until the tank was empty. The tank is designed to withstand the fire and it could be left to burn itself out. … In the unlikely event of a spill in the water, it turns back into natural gas when exposed to air and has no lasting effects on marine life or the water.”

The tideflats is already home to three oil refineries, the third busiest shipping terminals in the nation and oil train traffic. Fears of an accident at one facility causing a chain reaction involving the others might be farfetched to some people but big worries for others.