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Decisions pending in water-protecting initiatives, LNG’s ‘worst case’ response

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Port of Tacoma Commissioners have acknowledged – to some degree – that the now-dead effort to site the world’s largest methanol conversion plant in the world, the current controversy about plans for a liquefied nature gas (LNG) facility and the grassroots uprising regarding large-water-volume developments have all taken a toll on community good will.

That toll didn’t, however, stop the port from moving forward with a lawsuit to stop community members from gathering signatures for call for a public vote on future developments that would consume more than a million gallons of water a day.

“We have destroyed our community connection here,” Port Commissioner Don Meyer said during a port meeting last week, when commissioners then formally endorsed the move to continue the lawsuit.

Commissioners, however, amended the filing to remove a demand for Save Tacoma Water supporters to pay for the estimated $60,000 in legal expenses the port incurred to file the challenge. A hearing on a petition for summary judgment is set for July 1.

Port CEO John Wolfe said the legal filing against the signature gathering efforts was based on the legal questions surrounding the authoritative limits of initiatives, not an effort to quash public debate about the environment and job creation.

“It’s not about quieting voices,” he said. “It’s about focusing all those voices in a more productive way that achieves the public’s desired outcomes.”

The fact that a public vote on the lawsuit coming after the actual filing of the legal challenge prompted open-meetings gadfly Arthur West to file a formal complaint with the state’s Attorney General and Public Disclosure Commission with the claim that the lawsuit violates the law by using taxpayer dollars on political efforts.

“The recent actions, pleadings, press releases and statements of the Port of Tacoma, the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber clearly demonstrate that one of the actual primary purposes of each of these groups individually, and as their new incarnation as a tripartite political organization with a unified political agenda, is to affect governmental decision making by opposing ballot measures such as Tacoma Citizens’ Initiative 5 and 6,” he wrote in the complaint.

Port of Tacoma, the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber had filed the petition earlier this month to stop Save Tacoma Water activists from gathering signatures with the legal claims that the initiatives are legally flawed because they overstep the limits of the initiative process. They also would allegedly violate state law, which requires public utilities to provide its customers with access to power and water. The City of Tacoma was also named in the lawsuit, but city officials have since announced plans to defend the city with the legal argument that state law does not allow cities to determine if the results of a petition efforts are legal, just that it should follow an initiative process. The city also amended its court filings to remove a previous demand for repayment of its legal expenses. The business groups have filed no such change.

Initiative 6 would change the city code if it is placed on the November ballot and is approved by voters. Save Tacoma Water supporter last week turned in 4,800 signatures calling for the initiative to face a public vote. Those signatures are now being validated. The initiative needs 3,160 valid signatures to face a public vote if a judge allows the effort to continue.

Another effort, Amendment 5, could change the city charter, which can’t be overturned by the City Council like a code change can, is continuing to gather signatures. It would have to receive 5,559 valid signatures to appear on a ballot in 2017.

The initiatives were crafted while debate raged in Tacoma regarding a planned natural gas-to-methanol plant planned for the tideflats that would use more than 10 million gallons of water a day.

Another controversial project on the tideflats to face a judge’s decision is the planned 8 million gallon liquefied natural gas production and storage facility that Puget Sound Energy has in the works. Redline Tacoma member John Carlton is seeking emergency response information concerning the facility. PSE is appealing an earlier judge’s decision to release the data on the grounds that it contains company secrets and details that could make the facility a target of terrorist attacks. A decision was expected last week but has yet to arrive.

PSE, which has mounted an extensive public relations and advertising campaign of web ads and community surveys, claims the facility is needed to store natural gas for the seven or eight days a year when peak demand outpaces supply and to fuel TOTE container ships that use lower-emission LNG rather than diesel.

Members of Redline, a sibling of Save Tacoma Water, fear the facility would endanger the waterway and nearby residents if there were an accident, a claim PSE officials say is unfounded.

“The LNG project poses no threat to downtown Tacoma from explosion or fire or anything else,” PSE spokesman Grant Ringel said, noting that even the “worst case” accident would be contained within the facility’s 550-foot fenceline.

Carlton worries PSE is downplaying the potential dangers. The Puyallup Tribe has also filed a legal challenge against the plant, citing faults in the environmental review that leave questions about water runoff from the facility’s construction and operation.