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How safe is natural gas? Judge set to decide what public can know

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Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank E. Cuthbertson is set to decide today, April 29, whether his previous temporary decision will become permanent to keep the City of Tacoma from releasing the city’s hazardous response plans for a planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant.

Puget Sound Energy wants the information to remain secret out of fear that releasing details about the proposed plant’s safety assessment would make it a potential target for terrorist attacks as well as disclose confidential company plans. 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.

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. The derailment last week of 18 tanker train cars, albeit empty ones, just yards away from the PSE site illustrated that point.

PSE claims that any fire or explosion would not only be extremely rare, but also just 550 feet wide, well within the fence line of the 30-acre facility at East 11th Street and Taylor Way, just blocks away from what would have been the world’s largest methanol plant had Northwest Innovation Works succeeded despite widespread opposition from local governments and environmental groups, including Red Line Tacoma. Opponents have widely circulated some estimates and a map that shows a three-mile “blast zone” that covers the residential areas of Browns Point around through Fife and even parts of Interstate 5 and downtown Tacoma.

The City of Tacoma’s fact page on the plant, as well as information found on the PSE website, state that the map is based on estimates for a facility five times bigger than the LNG plant being proposed.

“Such zones might be appropriate for LNG import/export terminals served by LNG cargo ships carrying 35 million or more gallons of LNG. They are based on worst-case scenarios involving a terrorist attack on an LNG cargo ship resulting in an uncontrolled spill of LNG over the water. There will be no cargo ships calling on the proposed facility capable of carrying those amounts of LNG, and they will not be permitted to operate as an import/export facility.”

PSE is in the permitting process to build the $275 million facility on the Tacoma tideflats as a way to store natural gas that would be used to power Totem Ocean Trailer Express cargo ships as well as provide for a ready supply of natural gas storage the utility could use during exceptionally cold weather.

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. The United States Coast Guard is conducting a Waterway Suitability Study for the proposed project and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission must also review the facility’s design. PSE plans to have the plant operational by 2019. That timeline could change, particularly since the Puyallup Tribe has sought to have the process at least delayed, arguing that the environmental review was incomplete and included faulty information.

Specifically, the tribe worries that construction of the LNG 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.

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