Protesters gather outside the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center before a hearing about a proposed methanol plant being build in Tacoma. Kate Martin
Protesters gather outside the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center before a hearing about a proposed methanol plant being build in Tacoma. Kate Martin

Politics & Government

South Sound opposition opens up against Tacoma methanol proposal

By Derrick Nunnally

February 10, 2016 09:31 PM

Residents and politicians in several quarters of the South Sound added this week to the public objections lodged against building the world’s largest methanol production plant in the Tideflats.

In Tacoma on Wednesday night, 1,000 people showed up for a hearing to plan the city’s environmental review of the plant. Proceedings were frequently interrupted by applause when the proposal, and the politicians thought to have enabled it, were targeted by the procession of anti-refinery speakers.

Hours earlier in Olympia, three House Republicans filed a bill to block building the plant because its emissions from burning large amounts of natural gas to create methanol would “jeopardize air quality” in an area that has previously failed to meet air-quality standards. A different bill against the plant by a Democratic senator from Tacoma appears to have died.

In Federal Way, the mayor called an emergency City Council meeting for Thursday night to discuss what — if anything — the suburb could do about the potential 125-acre industrial plant that would be built beyond its borders and political reach.

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“I think we’re stakeholders,” said Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell. “We live right near this, and I think it’s important for us to speak up right now.”

Most of the litany of permits Northwest Innovation Works, a corporation controlled by China’s government, must obtain to build the plant concern pollution and safety in Tacoma and Commencement Bay, and the towns and tribal land that a required gas pipeline would run beneath. Ferrell reported a sense of frustration at not being consulted about the plant, even though it would be built closer to his city’s borders than to most of Tacoma’s residential neighborhoods.

“We have gone down there on our own and had to learn about this, frankly, from the media,” Farrell said.

The state legislation against the plant appears to have limited reach because the only members of either Capitol chamber who have attached their names to anti-methanol legislation come from the chambers’ minority parties.

In the House, the methanol bill is sponsored by Reps. Linda Kochmar and Teri Hickel, both from Federal Way, and Rep. Matt Manweller, their fellow Republican from Ellensburg. Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has tried two efforts against building the methanol plant: a bill (which targets a form of natural gas the plant’s builders say they don’t plan to use) that has not been granted a committee hearing and an amendment that has not been voted on.

In their turns at the lectern in a Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center exhibition hall Wednesday night, several among the scores of residents who railed against the plant focused their complaints on the power and machinations behind granting the proposal a 30-year lease on waterfront property at the Port of Tacoma.

“The city of Tacoma and the port might be sellouts, but the majority of us in this room are not,” said Roxann Murray, a photographer and artist, after urging the crowd to “vote these people out.”

Murray and several other speakers cited Tacoma’s long history of industrial pollution, particularly lead and arsenic scattered across the region by the former Asarco copper smelter.

“No one told me that my soil was polluted until after I bought my house in North Tacoma,” Murray said. “I’d prefer it if my water wasn’t polluted too.”

Some measure of support for the proposal to build the methanol plant was heard.

Methanol plant proponents describe proposal

Mandy Putney of Northwest Innovation Works describes the proposed Tacoma Tideflats methanol manufacturing plant at a public hearing at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center on Wednesday.

Peter Haley /

The event’s first two speakers, an iron workers union representative and the head of the county’s economic development board, touted the jobs that would come if Northwest Innovation Works gets its permits to make 20,000 tons of methanol per day on the Tideflats, all for export. Northwest Innovation Works has said the $3.4 billion facility could be running at full strength in 2021.

The company said the plant will employ 1,000 workers at the peak of its construction and will permanently bring 260 jobs to now-vacant land where the Kaiser Aluminum smelter once stood.

“It is by history and by location the very definition of a working waterfront,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

The series of residents who spoke next all blasted the proposal. Northwest Innovation Works President Murray “Vee” Godley watched from the audience but did not speak.

“This is widespread dissent,” said Joseph Taliento, a Tacoma resident who complained about a lack of transparency in the process, as did several others.

Charles Creso, who said his home in Northeast Tacoma makes him a “downwinder,” drew a standing ovation from many when he called for the resignation of Port Commission President Connie Bacon.

Many speakers said their fears include the “blast zone” of a potential explosion at the facility, which will pipe in natural gas to convert to methanol. (Godley said in a separate interview that methanol is nonexplosive.)

The concern of immense disaster, said Doug Mackey, who described himself as a union member, outweighs the potential construction-jobs benefits of building a megaproject.

“This is not the second Narrows Bridge or anything like it,” Mackey said. “There was no concern about a blast zone at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.”

University Place Mayor Javier Figueroa and Federal Way Assistant City Attorney Ryan Call, who said he was speaking on behalf of that city’s mayor, both spoke critically of the proposal. Figueroa was among the critics who disliked that the facility’s product would result in profits mainly for China.

“There’s no benefit to the citizens of this great nation or this county,” Figueroa said.

Tacoma city officials say the environmental review of the facility will require about a year once its terms are finalized. The third, and final, hearing over which aspects of the methanol plant’s potential effects should be included is scheduled for Tuesday at Meeker Middle School in Northeast Tacoma. Doors will open at 5 p.m. with public comment beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally