Who is responsible if the world’s largest methanol refinery gets built on Tacoma’s Tideflats? That depends on whom you ask.
Leaders of the two local governments most involved in siting the methanol plant have in recent weeks attempted to deflect the ire of the plant’s critics by saying the other is responsible.
At a City Council meeting last month, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told a crowd of people upset about the proposal that the council did not bring the methanol plant to Tacoma and is unlikely to ever vote on the project.
She advised those gathered to air their grievances to the Port of Tacoma, which is leasing land for the plant to Northwest Innovation Works. The company, backed by the Chinese government, has proposed the $3.4 billion refinery to convert natural gas to methanol for export to China for eventual plastic manufacturing.
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“There is another elected body that has, in my opinion, a much bigger role in all of this,” Strickland said.
But port officials insist the onus is not on them. At a meeting last week, Port Commission President Connie Bacon said the port is merely a landlord: “We have no decision-making authority whatsoever.”
What we are elected to do is respond to economic development opportunities. We are not the decision makers as to whether this project can be built or not.
Port of Tacoma commission president Connie Bacon
So what about the commission’s vote in 2014 to approve a lease for the plant? Bacon dismissed the idea that the decision was pivotal, saying it was based merely on what the company could do for the region’s economy.
“What we are elected to do is respond to economic development opportunities,” Bacon said. “We are not the decision makers as to whether this project can be built or not.”
The back and forth didn’t sit well with several people who, apparently taking the mayor’s advice, attended the port’s monthly meeting last week. About 50 people showed up, a level of public scrutiny that’s rare for the noontime meetings.
“I’m hearing that the city is not responsible. And now I’m hearing that you are not responsible,” East Side resident Juan Jose Chavez said. “Who is going to be making the actual decision?”
I’m hearing that the city is not responsible. And now I’m hearing that you are not responsible. Who is going to be making the actual decision?
Juan Jose Chavez, East Side Tacoma resident
CITY PLANNERS IN LEAD FOR NOW
Bacon said the port’s approval of a lease with Northwest Innovation Works was just the start of a process that will decide whether the methanol plant gets built.
Before Northwest Innovation Works came calling, the port turned down another company that wanted the former Kaiser Aluminum property for a coal export terminal, Bacon said. Concerns around coal dust and contaminants leeching into the ground scotched the deal.
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“We had refused that out of hand. It’s not something we wanted to do,” Bacon said.
But when it came to the methanol lease, even if the port had heard residents’ concerns before the lease vote, they wouldn’t have made a difference to Bacon unless they were “substantiated by facts and research.”
“We can’t get the answers to those questions,” she said, without going through the environmental studies that will precede the city’s permitting process.
The real decision-makers on the methanol plant work is the city of Tacoma’s planning department, she said.
Enter Tacoma planner Ian Munce, who is shepherding the public comment process that will shape the environmental review for the proposal. He figures his department has fielded about 1,000 comments so far on the project. The city is collecting comments through March 4.
Those comments will help shape the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, that will outline what the plant’s owners must do to compensate for negative effects to the environment, area neighborhoods, health, traffic and so forth. The EIS must also examine a range of alternatives to building the requested project — such as reducing the plant’s size, building it somewhere else or not building it at all, Munce said.
The city is planning to hire a consultant to help write the document later this year. Northwest Innovation Works is paying the city’s costs for managing the process under a contract the company signed with Tacoma in December.
The property’s current zoning appears to be appropriate for “a project like this,” but zoning is not the only deciding factor, Munce said.
Theoretically, if the environmental review document determined that impacts from the project were so large they couldn’t possibly be mitigated, the city could deny permits.
“For instance, if the EIS concluded based on cumulative analysis that this was the wrong location, it’s hard to see how the city could issue those permits,” Munce said, although he doesn’t recall an environmental review ruling out a project in the seven years he’s been at the city.
For instance, if the EIS concluded based on cumulative analysis that this was the wrong location, it’s hard to see how the city could issue those permits.
Tacoma planner Ian Munce
In addition to evaluating harmful impacts, the EIS will also weigh the project’s positive attributes, including increased tax revenues to various government agencies and the jobs created during the years-long construction period and operation of the plant.
Supporters tout the projected 260 permanent positions and 1,000 more temporary construction jobs as the factory is built on 125 acres of vacant industrial land on the Hylebos Peninsula through 2021.
Northwest Innovation Works officials have said producing methanol from natural gas creates less of the greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change than the traditional coal-to-methanol process. The way the company plans to use electricity instead of natural gas to heat the manufacturing process will lower carbon emissions even further.
POSSIBLE DECISION POINT AHEAD FOR PORT
Bacon said the plant should be built if the benefits outweigh the risks, and people who are worried about potential risks should also consider their own impact on the environment.
People are concerned about air pollution. I ask them ‘When are you going to stop driving your car?’
Port of Tacoma commission president Connie Bacon
“People are concerned about air pollution,” Bacon said recently. “I ask them ‘When are you going to stop driving your car?’ ”
City Councilman Robert Thoms, whose district includes the Tideflats, said the port is the logical place for a methanol plant because that’s where the zoning allows it.
But, he says, the city still has a say. The council has the power the rezone the land to prohibit a methanol plant. He’s not advocating that change, but says, "We are not impotent. If people want to go after it, we can."
“I’m not going to stand by and have industrial uses that impede our quality of life or emergency response times. Period,” Thoms said. “I have grave concerns about anything that looks overly industrial down there. … The size and scope of projects does matter.”
I have grave concerns about anything that looks overly industrial down there. … The size and scope of projects does matter.
Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms
The port itself might have another shot at shaping the fate of the project. The commission could vote sometime in April to extend the feasibility period outlined in the Northwest Innovation Works lease, said Lou Paulsen, Port of Tacoma director for strategic operations projects. He said he expects the company will ask the port to extend the feasibility period, which currently expires April 30.
If the commission declined to extend the feasibility period, Paulsen said, it’s likely Northwest Innovation Works would not abandon the project but instead proceed to the next phase of the contract. But the company would have to enter the “construction phase” of its lease, forcing its rent payments to soar from the current $8,000 a month to approximately $270,000 per month.
Entering the construction phase also would lock the company more firmly into the lease, Paulsen said. Northwest Innovation Works can escape the lease during the feasibility phase if it pays the port $1.8 million, part of which would be credited from rent payments already received. That option goes away in the construction phase.
Paulsen said the lease does not give the port the same right to change its mind. The port could terminate the lease only in specific circumstances, such as if the company becomes insolvent.
Upcoming public meetings on methanol project
Wednesday, Feb. 10: Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, fifth floor, 1500 Broadway. Doors open at 5 p.m. for speaker sign up and the meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. Speakers will be called upon in order of sign up. There will be room for 1,900 people. The city of Tacoma is hosting this meeting to get comment on the draft scope of work regarding the Environmental Impact Statement.
Tuesday, Feb. 16: Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Avenue NE. Doors open at 5 p.m. for speaker sign up. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. There will be room for 200 people.
Thursday, Feb. 18: The Fabulich Center, Room 104, 3600 Port of Tacoma Road. This Port of Tacoma commission meeting will include a presentation about the Northwest Innovation Works project and the time line for permitting and other issues. The meeting begins at noon.