A state appeals court has rejected The News Tribune’s request to halt permitting and construction of a liquid natural gas plant on 30 acres of the Tacoma Tideflats until its safety studies are made public.
In a ruling handed down Friday, Appeals Commissioner Eric Schmidt said he could find no authority to grant the newspaper’s request, which would have held up progress on the project while courts decide whether fire and siting reports ought to be released.
Puget Sound Energy is partway through the permitting process for its $275 million project, which is to make up to 250,000 gallons of liquid natural gas each day out of piped-in natural gas.
The facility is to sell some of the LNG to outside users, including a container-ship company, and use about 7 percent of its output as a reserve for a half-dozen peak demand days a year.
The utility’s plans include building on its Alexander Avenue East site an 8-million-gallon storage tank nearly as tall as the Tacoma Dome.
The studies requested by The News Tribune and by two activists who have a similar case under appeal include what happens if fuel in that storage tank were to leak, become a vapor cloud or catch fire, including the computer models of the damage radius.
The studies have been submitted to the city of Tacoma and other public agencies in charge of reviewing plant safety and issuing permits. A News Tribune reporter requested all communications about the plant between the city and PSE, and the utility sued the newspaper and the reporter to block the safety studies’ inclusion.
Although PSE has said the studies prove its contention that the plant would pose no danger beyond its property line, it has fought release of the documents, saying they would enable terrorism by exposing the weakest parts of the plant’s infrastructure.
The federal law PSE cites as its reason for fighting release of the documents gives a facility discretion over releasing the “engineering, vulnerability or detailed design information ... (that) could be useful to a person planning an attack on critical infrastructure.”
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson found that PSE’s contention was not valid, but he delayed ordering the release of the documents to give PSE time to appeal the ruling.
After the newspaper asked the appeals court to release the documents or pause the project, attorneys for the utility and the city countered that the request was beyond the authority of a court considering a public-records case.
Although Schmidt ruled that the documents can be withheld until the full appeal is considered, he agreed to The News Tribune’s request to speed up the case. It is to be heard by the court in December.
Public-records activist Arthur West has made a similar request to stop LNG project work in a separate case. It concerns records requests by West and by RedLine Tacoma activist John Carlton, which is now in appeals.
West said Friday he had not yet received a ruling.