WATCH: Two sides state their case for or against a methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma

An overflow crowd at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center debate the merits of building a 125-acre methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma. If permitted, this would put the world’s largest methanol production facility on Tacoma’s tideflats in
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An overflow crowd at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center debate the merits of building a 125-acre methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma. If permitted, this would put the world’s largest methanol production facility on Tacoma’s tideflats in
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Politics & Government

Proposed methanol plant draws debate at Tacoma hearing

By Derrick Nunnally

dnunnally@thenewstribune.com

January 21, 2016 09:03 PM

A contentious hearing Thursday night to guide official scrutiny of a proposed Tideflats methanol plant drew hundreds more people than a 400-seat meeting room in the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center could hold, leaving city officials pondering Friday how to handle future hearings.

“We are going to fix this next time,” said Ian Munce, the city’s principal planner and manager of the methanol project. “We are going to the ballroom next time.”

The meeting room used for Thursday’s event, instead of the 1,200-capacity ballroom, resulted in a meeting that started an hour ahead of schedule, after all seats were filled and the room’s perimeter was lined by the project’s advocates and detractors jammed together. into close proximity.

Opponents of the project — many showing their allegiances with “No methanol refinery” lapel pins — visibly outnumbered the dozens of plant supporters in labor-union T-shirts and construction helmets in the hearing room and hallway.

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The opponents spoke longer into the night about their concerns about the plant’s potential effects consequences on the region’s air, water and public health via everyday operations and extraordinary disasters such as explosions.

Ingrid Walker, a Tacoma resident, called putting the facility inside a growing city “foolish and dangerous” for the dangers it could pose.

“I hear this is a clean industry. I’m not convinced,” she said, in comments that ended with applause from her fellow plant opponents.

Although the purpose of the meeting was to gather factors to be included in an environmental review of the project — a prerequisite for a permit application — many of the supporters said the plant’s benefits for the workforce were a prime concern.

“These will be jobs with dignity,” said Don DeMulling, an iron worker from Puyallup, in comments his fellow union members applauded.

The hearing was the first public meeting since the Port of Tacoma agreed in 2014 on a 30-year lease of waterfront property to build the 125-acre methanol production facility, which would be the world’s largest.

The project’s proposer, Northwest Innovation Works, draws financial support from China’s government and BP (the British petroleum company), and also plans to build two similar plants in Kalama and the Port of St. Helens in Clatskanie, Oregon.

Northwest Innovation Works has said it would hire 1,000 construction workers to build the Tacoma plant, and 260 permanent employees by the time it comes fully online in 2021. Sign-in sheets show that 54 of the the 65 people who registered to speak in favor of the facility identified themselves as being affiliated with labor unions.

The 117 plant opponents who signed in mostly identified themselves as area residents, with a few listing environmental affiliations, including the Sierra Club, the Tahoma Audubon Society and Red Line Tacoma, a group founded to oppose the methanol proposal.

Supporters and opponents claimed environmentalist motivations.

Several backers lauded the proposal as a way to help wean Chinese manufacturing concerns from using coal by providing cleaner-burning methanol, which Gov. Jay Inslee has cited as among his reasons for supporting the plant.

“I’m by no means putting jobs ahead of the environment,” said Michael Anthony of Centralia, a member of Boilermakers Local 502, “but I think we can have both.”

Opponents said the cost would be felt acutely by Tacomans and globally when the methanol is used to turn fracked natural gas into a way to increase Chinese production of plastic products.

“We’d be enabling China to pollute our oceans more than it already does,” said Ellen Moore, a member of the city’s Sustainable Tacoma Commission, who concluded her speech by saying she was resigning her position because the commission had not been consulted about the plan.

Opponents of the facility cited the threats of air and water pollution via plant emissions, along with the threat of an explosion if the plant’s flammable methanol or natural-gas pipeline is mishandled or attacked.

Several cited troubling problematic consequences of Tacoma’s industrial past, including the much-mocked “Tacoma aroma” and the lead and arsenic that fell from the Asarco copper smelter smokestack into Tacoma’s soils for much of the 20th century.

“Yes, we need jobs,” said Bruce Hoeft, a retired teacher who lives in Tacoma, “but we need ones that will not threaten the health of the people who have those jobs and the people who live nearby. … The smelter also provided those jobs, and it poisoned the land and the water.”

Labor officials who spoke drew applause from supporters by saying constructing a methanol facility to U.S. standards would ensure maximum safety.

“This land is already industrial,” Lee Newgent, executive secretary of the Washington state Building and Construction Trades Council, said of the Tacoma Tideflats site, where the Kaiser aluminum smelter once stood. “This land is not virgin and untouched.”

Christopher Paul Jordan, a Hilltop resident, said the plant’s demands on the city water and electric utilities should be closely examined, and its consequences for rivers and streams.

“There needs to be more accountability with our public utilities in general,” Jordan said. “There is no way something like this should be considered without a public vote.”

He also questioned whether the environmental harm outweighed the business benefit.

“What kind of place are we in, in an economy when we have to be spoon-fed jobs from the Chinese government?” Jordan said.

The city’s schedule says draft guidelines for the environmental study are to be released by Feb. 9, with a public hearing Feb. 16 in a 200-capacity room at Meeker Middle School, but Munce says that might change.

Red Line and the Audubon Society, he said, have requested a longer public comment period. Munce said he hopes to decide Monday whether to arrange a second hearing before the draft is prepared to collect more comments.

The city is also accepting written comments on the scope of the environmental study at tacoma.methanol.sepa@cityoftacoma.org. Munce said before the meeting that more than 130 written comments had already been received.

Staff writer Kate Martin contributed to this report.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally