The discussion — which could this year turn into a debate, and then a fight — over construction of a liquid methanol plant on the Tacoma Tideflats has the potential to be a long-running one, just because of the range of issues, from the local to the global, providing multiple entry points for interested parties to dive in and participate.
There’s a size aspect, a proposed $3.4 billion investment in a plant to receive natural gas via pipeline, convert it to liquid methanol, then ship it to China where it’s to be used as a feedstock for plastics production.
There’s an economic aspect, with the developers promising 1,000 temporary jobs at peak construction and 260 jobs when the plant is in operation and detractors questioning whether that’s sufficient to counterbalance the objections they’re raising.
There’s a trade aspect, with proponents touting the export of an American-made product, and opponents unhappy about the prospect of a Chinese-controlled facility locally and questioning the value of providing raw material to China that will be made into stuff that gets sent back here, worsening an already out-of-kilter trade balance.
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There are natural-resource arguments, over water (and how much will be needed for processing and cooling) and domestic natural gas.
There are environmental issues involving air emissions and noise vs. the worldwide benefit of having the Chinese supplant coal as a feedstock for chemical production.
And there are safety issues. Concerns about a major industrial facility and natural gas transmission, distribution and use — by homes and businesses — is already pervasive, and the fuel’s safety won’t be completely assured unless every pipeline, hot-water tank and furnace goes away.
The verbal and legal collisions those issues set up will play out in the coming months as the proposal works its way through permitting. Right now the city is in the midst of a scoping process (the comment period on the scoping part of the process ends March 4); all that does is determine what should be in the environmental impact statement. The EIS, in turn, is just a big report that regulators use in determining whether to issue permits — of which there will be a lot, including a Puget Sound Clean Air Agency construction air contaminant permit, a construction stormwater permit, a permit to construct a lateral pipeline, a city of Tacoma Shoreline Substantial Development Permit, a Department of Ecology Water Quality Certification and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ sections 10 and 404 permits. Oh, and a Coast Guard review.
Hanging over all of this deliberation and report-writing is a big-ticket, broad-perspective and not-so-long-term question that weighs mightily on the future of this community: If not this project, then what do you want to do with the Tideflats?
It’s a not-so-long-term question not just because of this project, or because of the objections raised by Tacomans who believe they’ll be affected. The future of urban-area industrial zones is a big one across the country.
Like Tacoma, Seattle grew up as an industrial city and, its present image notwithstanding, there are still sizable pockets of industrial activity, such as Sodo, Harbor Island and along the Ship Canal.
But for how much longer? Competing uses — housing, retailing, offices, even proposed arenas — can pay more for land on the periphery of those zones at a time when industrial companies operating in global marketplaces are looking to slice every dollar they can. And once those competing uses show up on the doorstep, the workers, customers and residents often object to finding industrial activities occurring in what used to be an industrial zone. Meanwhile, industrial workers are being squeezed out by high housing prices, and operating costs increase because of congestion. Given all that, little wonder that some businesses decide it makes more sense to do business in the Kent Valley or the Tideflats.
Development patterns and contrasting economic fortunes have muted that cycle in Tacoma, but it’s not immune to the same competition for land and uses. One difference is that Tacoma, particularly in the Tideflats, still has room for development. The Port of Tacoma’s website advertises “more than 2,700 acres of prime industrially-zoned property.”
To do what? Maybe just use it for more container storage and staging space for trains, especially if the era of super-jumbo-ginormous ships comes to pass. Or warehouses. Or advanced manufacturing (as long as they do it quietly). Or industrial-scale marijuana grow facilities (an increasingly popular economic development strategy). Or perhaps let it morph into some other non-industrial use.
The Tideflats has long been Tacoma’s workshop, but it hasn’t stayed static. Companies come and go. The methanol plant is proposed for the former site of Kaiser aluminum smelter. Timber and lumber have waned. Some boat builders endure while others (Tacoma Boat, Martinac) disappear. The port transitioned to containers.
The area is going to change again, whether anyone plans for it. What it’s going to change into, and whether that’s for the better, are topics that may not be on the official discussion agenda. Given what’s at stake, they ought to be.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.