A view from the East 11th Street Bridge of Puget Sound Energy’s proposed 30-acre liquid natural gas plant site on the Tacoma Tideflats. The $275 million plant would be situated along Alexander Avenue and East 11th Street between the Blair and Hylebos waterways. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com
A view from the East 11th Street Bridge of Puget Sound Energy’s proposed 30-acre liquid natural gas plant site on the Tacoma Tideflats. The $275 million plant would be situated along Alexander Avenue and East 11th Street between the Blair and Hylebos waterways. Drew Perine dperine@thenewstribune.com

Local

Federal rules bar release of Tacoma LNG documents? Not so, feds say

By Derrick Nunnally

dnunnally@thenewstribune.com

October 10, 2016 07:00 AM

UPDATED October 10, 2016 11:26 PM

Puget Sound Energy, in arguing to keep its liquified natural gas safety studies secret, drew on disclosure rules developed by a federal agency, court filings and a company spokesman said.

But that agency, which doesn’t oversee the Tacoma project, says PSE is free to release any materials it wants.

The PSE documents, obtained independently by The News Tribune, contemplate the level of danger should a spill or accident occur. A PSE contractor compiled the studies and determined that there would be no foreseeable ill effects beyond the property line.

Still, PSE considers both documents too sensitive to release to the public, spokesman H. Grant Ringel said, based on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules for other LNG plants.

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After fighting the release of the records in several courts — including an ongoing appeal — PSE has proposed allowing access to the records only in person, and only to people who mail a nondisclosure agreement form to a P.O. Box.

Ringel said many of the terms were taken directly from FERC guidelines.

“We’re following their guidelines,” Ringel said, “because they’re in the same boat that we are from the standpoint of having to protect that kind of information.”

FERC has no jurisdiction over the proposed Tideflats plant.

The federal agency oversees only import/export LNG plants, or those that do interstate business, FERC spokesman Craig Cano said. Even if the agency supervised this plant, he added, its information restrictions don’t apply to PSE.

“FERC’s rules do not ‘forbid’ release of information by the companies themselves,” Cano wrote in an email. “They can post or distribute any information they choose to.”

Ringel said that the Critical Infrastructure Information Act of 2002 compels PSE to keep its sensitive plant materials beyond public view. That law allows federal agencies with jurisdiction to keep some documents secret.

PSE’s rationale in court filings for fighting disclosure has been that the fire evaluation report and siting study, and a set of computer-generated animations of how spill scenarios would play out, contain information that could be used in a terrorist attack against the plant.

Hannah Wiseman, a law professor at Florida State University who specializes in energy law, said the years since the initial post-9/11 tightening of infrastructure security information have brought “a lot of public objections” to perceived overreach in keeping information secret.

Fossil fuel train routes, she said, have been kept secret even from people living next to them.

“That just seems ridiculous, right?” Wiseman said. “It’s a risk to this specific community.”

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PSE’s sharing of its safety documents with a limited group of local officials — including the Tacoma Fire Department — rather than the general public is typical of LNG plant planning, Wiseman said.

“That’s one sort of compromise,” she said.

After The News Tribune obtained the reports, it asked two engineering experts to review the documents. Both said there is little reason to fear that either report requires such protection.

John Y. Mak, technical director of the Texas construction company Fluor, said the documents don’t concern him as safety risks.

The numerical evaluations of how bad a specific pipe breaking might be, he said, is not accompanied by detailed designs showing where such a pipe is. He said the company might be more concerned with how releasing the documents exposes work its contractor performed as confidential business.

“In terms of plant safety, there are no concerns,” Mak wrote in an email. “But publishing these data does not guarantee plant safety.”

Peter McDonough, the owner of Duhallow Consulting in Salt Lake City and an expert in disaster planning at gas plants, said he saw only one diagram in either file that contained a degree of detail he thought might be dangerous to let out: a map in the fire safety evaluation that highlights where the plant’s water valves will be.

“I could see where the plant operators would consider that real proprietary information where they wouldn’t want that kind of information to get out to the public,” McDonough said, “just because it shows where the operational valves are, and someone who got in the plant could find them.”

The News Tribune is withholding that two-part map from the data it posted online with this story. A series of computer-animated disaster scenario videos obtained with the documents is also being withheld until we can provide context for what the videos show.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally