Coffee and methanol: Why Northeast Tacoma seniors got politically active

At their weekly coffee klatch at the Center at Norpoint, Northeast Tacoma seniors discuss whey they became unified and active in their opposition to a proposed methanol refinery.
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At their weekly coffee klatch at the Center at Norpoint, Northeast Tacoma seniors discuss whey they became unified and active in their opposition to a proposed methanol refinery.
By

Matt Driscoll

How Tacoma’s methanol debate went sideways, and what we can learn from it

April 23, 2016 04:00 AM

Well, that was interesting.

It’s difficult to know how else to sum up the long, strange methanol trip Tacoma concluded last week, when Northwest Innovation Works President Murray “Vee” Godley made the surprising — but not too surprising — announcement that his company was bailing on its attempt to build the world’s largest methanol refinery on the Tideflats.

To many, the final outcome was a good thing. When Godley told The News Tribune’s Kate Martin, “Right now, we no longer have a project in Tacoma,” celebratory shouts and champagne pops rang out from the B&I to Browns Point.

“I think it was the right decision,” City Councilman Ryan Mello told me, freed at long last from the shackles of required public neutrality.

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I tend to agree.

And when Godley said the protests in Tacoma had no effect on the decision to pull the plug on the would-be refinery, I tend to think it’s baloney — at least when considering the way public pressure eroded political will behind the plant and effectively ratcheted up the regulatory hurdles in front of it.

But while that’s water under the bridge now (roughly 7,200 gallons per minute), I still can’t help but be reflective — and slightly troubled — by how we arrived at this point.

How did a community conversation reach a tenor of intensity and vitriol that nearly consumed us?

I guess I’m happy because, quite frankly, the discussion was kind of tearing our community apart.

Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell

“I guess I’m happy because, quite frankly, the discussion was kind of tearing our community apart,” City Councilman Marty Campbell said Wednesday, asked for his reflection on the week’s developments.

“We don’t like to see that. That’s not good.”

The community conversation we had, if you can call it that, had plenty of low points. There are valid critiques to be made of some of the tactics used by those who fought against the plant. Good people got smeared. Misinformation spread online. Civility quickly became a lost art form.

The stories I’ve heard — whether it’s University of Washington Tacoma’s Joel Baker (yes, the chairman in Environmental Science, a position endowed by the Port of Tacoma) relaying tales of his administrative assistant being berated by phone, or thoughtful journalists covering the methanol saga for other organizations confiding in me that they were starting to crack under the pressure of the hateful things people were saying online — prove the lines of civic decency were frequently crossed.

But blaming a handful of impassioned activists alone for the ugliness is about as questionable as that blast zone map they distributed.

The methanol conversation reached its nadir because some suspected the public process was stacked against average citizens, the company behind the would-be refinery failed at nearly every opportunity to provide even the most basic information, and people wanted answers to legitimate questions and they just couldn’t get them.

“There was a tremendous amount of fear and frustration,” Mello observed, in what might be the understatement of the year.

In this vacuum, the conversation went sideways. That’s not absolving anyone’s behavior, it’s seeking to understand what happened beyond simply pointing fingers at the public from positions of power.

I think the temperature in Tacoma, the outrage, was more intense than I’ve seen anywhere else. And I actually think some of it was justified.

Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute

“I think the temperature in Tacoma, the outrage, was more intense than I’ve seen anywhere else. And I actually think some of it was justified,” Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, offered. “The problem I think is, with a lot of these projects, the existing power structures we have all seem to kind of bake in the outcome, right from the beginning. … To an ordinary community member, it can seem like they’re getting railroaded.”

So what did we learn?

For starters, the process by which important information is disseminated needs a 21st century update. It’s true that the Port of Tacoma followed existing rules and regulation about notifying the public of upcoming meetings and decisions. It’s also true that The News Tribune began publishing stories about NWIW’s desire to build a methanol plant in Tacoma way back in 2014.

Still, people felt blindsided when most didn’t learn about the prospect of the methanol refinery until well after the 30-year lease was signed. That’s legitimate. And it’s where a lot of the distrust started.

Instead of asking citizens to be more engaged, the people whose responsibility it is to get the word out — largely government agencies, like the Port Commission, but also advocacy groups, invested academics and, yes, the media — need to reflect on what it actually takes to reach people.

It’s also clear the environmental review process for a project of this scope has shortcomings. Some of the questions people had about the proposed methanol plant couldn’t be answered by anything short of an EIS statement, but it’s also apparent that a system by which a project like this gets the go-ahead favors approval, provided questions eventually get answered to the satisfaction of the lead agencies — not necessarily the public.

With a project the size of the methanol plant, people have every right to want concrete information before it reaches a point where, as Melissa Malott, the executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay, pointed out, “the political blowback would be crazy” if things weren’t allowed to move forward.

Bottom line: There are a lot of ways we can all do better.

If all the actors in this methanol issue were in my class, we all would have gotten F’s. I don’t think anyone did a good job, including me, all the way around.

University of Washington Tacoma’s Joel Baker, chairman in Environmental Science and science director of the Center for Urban Waters

“If all the actors in this methanol issue were in my class, we all would have gotten F’s,” Baker told me. “I don’t think anyone did a good job, including me, all the way around.”

Hopefully the next time something like this happens — and something like this will happen again — Tacoma finds a way to make the grade.

“I think (the methanol debate) is something that I’ll honestly be reflecting on for quite some time,” Campbell confided.

We’d all be wise to do the same.