Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: No conspiracy, just responsible reporting on gas plant story

September 24, 2016 8:15 PM

After weeks of battling in court for their release, The News Tribune independently obtained safety studies on the liquid natural gas plant that Puget Sound Energy wants to build on the Tacoma Tideflats.

The studies had been a missing link in an important and ongoing story.

We wrote Wednesday that the studies, commissioned by PSE, say any potential gas leaks from the plant would be contained on-site.

That’s what the safety studies say. I read them myself.

We didn’t declare the plant safe. We said PSE’s own reports declare it safe.

But conspiracy theories abound because: a) we have the reports when others don’t; b) we didn’t post all of the documents online, and; c) the reports didn’t declare the plant a widespread hazard. That has led some to accuse the TNT of being in cahoots with PSE to cover up the plant’s dangers.

Let me try to fill in the blanks.

First, PSE has fought to keep the safety reports secret. The company says the federal government prevents it from sharing them with the public because they could expose vulnerabilities in the plant that bad guys could exploit. Knowing specifically where two gas pipes are joined, for instance, could point out exactly where a bomb would be most effective.

Three activists requested the safety reports. The city of Tacoma, which holds the documents, agreed to release them. PSE sued to stop the release.

Two Pierce County Superior Court judges said the documents should be public. PSE appealed to a higher court.

The TNT also requested the reports, and PSE sued to stop the release to us, as well.

Then, a week ago, PSE said it planned to make some of the documents available to the public, but only to those who signed a nondisclosure agreement restricting how the information could be shared.

The company made the same offer directly to us. We declined rather than signing away our rights.

We also independently obtained our own copy of the reports.

We are not disclosing how we obtained them. Washington has a Reporter Shield Law that protects journalists from having to reveal our sources. Sometimes, confidential sources are the only way to obtain information.

We obtained the reports legally. We didn’t cut a deal for them with PSE or anyone else.

Last week, we rescinded our records request for the documents.

We prepared a story based on the safety reports and posted it online. We also posted the two main written portions of the reports. While technical and thick, they explain how the Tacoma plant would fare in various scenarios of possible leaks, spills or fires. The scenarios were modeled using established industry standards.

Legally, we could have posted the accompanying diagrams, charts and videos, as well. But we erred on the side of caution.

We are not engineers or petroleum safety specialists. We don’t know if sharing those more detailed documents could pose true security threats.

So we’re still reporting.

We’re consulting with independent experts in the field, seeking answers to some basic questions. Were the studies well done? Are there further safety concerns?

Last week’s story was the beginning of our reporting, not the end.

When we get those answers, we’ll write about them and decide which additional documents to post.

If we believe there are true security concerns, we may not post all the documents. We feel no pressure to do so.

We’re not WikiLeaks; we’re journalists. We live and work in this community and feel a duty to handle a sensitive issue with the care it deserves.

The end product probably will be less than some people want, more than others want.

But to be clear, we want to share as much information as we can so the community is informed on this issue.

The last assertion of the conspiracy theorists is the most maddening — that if the modeling doesn’t show what they want it to, it can’t possibly be true.

Yes, there have been accidents at other liquid natural gas plants. Yes, we should keep pressing for information and demanding safety measures. Yes, a liquid natural gas plant poses risks.

But we can’t assess the risks accurately if we refuse to accept the outcomes of scientific studies.

The TNT is posting documents online — in a responsible way — so people can read them and pose the right questions as the plant goes through the permitting process. We’ll be asking questions as well.

And we’ll be doing it independently of people on either side of this issue.

TNT REPORTER RECEIVES AWARD

On Friday, reporter Sean Robinson received the Kenneth F. Bunting Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government for his stories about secrecy in the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office.

Robinson wrote about how Prosecutor Mark Lindquist tried for years to withhold public documents created on his personal cellphone, costing county taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The award is named for Ken Bunting, the late associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a founding board member of the coalition. (I am a current board member.) It honors “exceptional journalism that supports and demonstrates the importance of open government.”

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434, @TNTkpeterson

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