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Methonal plant: Over-capacity crowd voices support, opposition

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Community members, environment watchers and union workers filled the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center last month during the first public meeting concerning the proposed methanol plant in the works for the former Kaiser Aluminum plant site on the Tacoma Tideflats.

The 400-seat convention hall was filled about an hour before the meeting even started, prompting meeting organizers to open a second room nearby for people who were turned away from the primary room after Tacoma Fire Department officials determined it was at capacity. That room then quickly filled as well, sending more people into the hallway between the rooms.

The meeting was held to gather public comment about what issues should be addressed in the upcoming environmental review of the project, which involved the construction of what would be the world’s largest methanol-conversion plant. The environmental review will take about a year, but a draft of the list of areas to be studied during the process is expected to be available on Feb. 5. A newly added public comment meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. Another meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Ave. NE. Written comments will be collected until March 4.

“This process is going to be very transparent,” Tacoma Planning and Development Services Director Peter Huffman said.

Northwest Innovation Works is proposing a methanol plant on land it currently leases from the Port of Tacoma. The plant would convert up to 20,000 metric tons of natural gas piped into the facility each day into methanol that would then be shipped to China and made into olefins, which is a key component of plastics and electrical components. The facility could be in full operation by 2021.

“We took this action with the understanding it would create jobs,” Port of Tacoma Commissioner Connie Bacon said about the decision two years ago to lease the former Kaiser site to NWIW for the plant.

The Tacoma plant is one of three plants being proposed in the Pacific Northwest. The other two are being planned for the Port of Kalama and the Port of St. Helens. The company is a joint venture partly backed by the Chinese government, which announced the Tacoma plant would be double the size – from two lines to four – than what was originally planned after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the city last year.

The City of Tacoma is the official lead agency on the environmental review process. The environmental review will address potential impacts on everything from transportation, fire, health and safety that will then be used by an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies during their permitting processes. Those permits include a City of Tacoma Shoreline Substantial Development Permit, Department of Ecology Water Quality Certification, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Hydraulic Project Approval, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permits, and a Notice of Construction air contaminant permit from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The federal permits involve a review of waterway operations by the U.S. Coast Guard as well.

The crowd at the public comment meeting generally split into two camps. Supporters, who were represented mostly by construction and trade union officials, said the new facility would bring well-paying, and desperately needed jobs to the region and bring a former industrial site back into commercial use. The project would bring 1,000 construction jobs while the facility is being built and about 260 jobs when it is operational.

“We in the construction trade know safety all too well,” construction union representative Mark Martinez said, noting that an environmental review should be based on facts rather than hysteria of any feared mishaps.

Tacoma resident Ingrid Walker countered that argument by saying the nuclear reactor at Fukushima, Japan was built to handle disasters, only to become a disaster site when an earthquake created a tsunami that overwhelmed the facility in 2011.

“They thought they were prepared for that earthquake,” she said.

Critics voiced fear about the environmental and safety impacts of a potential explosion at the facility as well as the high demand for water and electricity the facility would require to operate just to create plastics.

“On the long and short list of what Tacoma needs, this isn’t it,” concerned citizen John Bronson said. He brought his son, John Crow Bronson, to the public meeting while on their way to a Boy Scout meeting so his son could get a first-hand view of public participation in the community.

Bronson worries about how the planned plant would affect property values, especially since he was considering buying a house in Tacoma. He fears the plant would perpetuate the “Aroma of Tacoma” image the city has shed in recent decades by focusing on environmental cleanup efforts on the tideflats just to provide a pipeline for Chinese companies to make more plastics. “How much more plastic do we need? China has everything we have. They have everything they need.”

NWIW estimates the $3.4 billion, 125-acre facility would use 10.4 million gallons of water each day, a 28-percent reduction of water use from first estimates of 14.4 million gallons a day. The drop would come from the reuse of water to cool the plant during the conversion process. The plant would use up to 450 megawatts of power, which is about the electrical use of 450,000 homes. It would almost double the power managed by Tacoma Public Utilities and require the public utility to buy power on the open market for resale to the facility.

An effort to land an advisory vote opposing the plant on the fall ballot had been in the works but the RedLine Tacoma Coalition shifted to an informational campaign after the City of Tacoma informed the petition effort did not qualify for a future ballot because it did not address a current or pending change in city code.

Both critics and supporters used environmental impact to state their cases concerning the project. Critics worried the site could be dangerous since it sits on an earthquake fault line as well as in the lahar zone, while supporters say the plant would allow for the cleaner making of plastics by helping China shift from the use of coal plants to cleaner-burning natural gas.

The facility has one high-profile supporter. Gov. Jay Inslee said the plant would provide economic opportunities for the region as well as serve as a model toward a “greener economy” by shifting away from coal-powered plants.

“Washington state is working to turn the global challenge of carbon pollution into new jobs and strong communities,” Inslee said in a news release. “This project at the former Kaiser site will boost our regional economy while eventually providing a needed supply of clean methanol fuel to Asia.”

NEXT STEPS

  • The draft guidelines for the environmental study are scheduled to be released by Feb. 5.
  • A newly added public comment meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.
  • The Center for Urban Waters will be hosting a four-part discussion series about the methanol plant in the coming months. Speakers will lead the series that is intended to provide a common understanding of the technical and scientific aspects of this complex project. Those meetings are set for 6 p.m. on Feb. 11, Feb. 25, March 3 and March 10 at University of Washington Tacoma’s Joy Building. These events will be recorded so the video from each of the meetings will be available after each session. Information about the series can be found at: Tacoma.uw.edu/methanol. Reservations are free but required.
  • Public comment meeting 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, at Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Ave. NE.
  • University of Puget Sound will host Wilma Subra, renowned environmental scientist and MacArthur Fellowship Genius-Award winner, who will give a free public presentation about methanol refineries at 6 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Kilworth Memorial Chapel, 3410 N. 18th St.
  • Written comments about the scope of the environmental study will be accepted through March 4. Written comments can be emailed to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
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