The city of Tacoma’s environmental watchdog is missing a few teeth.
Two members of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, a volunteer group that advises the City Council on environmental issues, resigned recently out of frustration with the handling of the stalled proposal that would bring a methanol production plant to the Port of Tacoma.
Former commissioners Ellen Moore and Rus Higley believe the advisory body should have received more information about the proposal months before it caught the attention of environmental activists.
Like other city officials, they were not consulted until well after project backer Northwest Innovation Works had secured a lease for the property it wants to develop.
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They said the delay fed perceptions among some commissioners that the City Council and city staff members did not take them seriously.
“We should be the first go to,” said Moore, a lecturer at the University of Washington Tacoma. “If we’re called the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, the city should have come to us. The port should have come to us. I found out about it on Facebook.”
Her and Higley’s resignations, along with one more member who quit because of changes in his business, leave three vacancies on the 11-member commission.
The city is trying to fill six spots because terms for three other commissioners expire this month.
The commission, launched in 2008, holds monthly meetings and has authority to request information about city projects. It does its own research and gives guidance to elected officials about pending decisions.
An increased supply of methanol will facilitate the production of even more plastic, which has global environmental impacts from cradle to grave.
Rus Higley, former Sustainable Tacoma Commission member
It was created to hold the city accountable to a set of goals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide. The commission also developed the proposal that would ban stores from handing out disposable plastic bags.
Commission Chairwoman Christine Cooley said she regretted her colleagues’ decision to resign.
“I wish that Ellen and Rus would have stayed on the board,” Cooley said. “They’re great strategic thinkers.”
From Cooley’s perspective, city officials value the commission’s work. In the months ahead, it’s scheduled to advise the city on a new environmental action plan as well as to consider the methanol proposal.
“The city is listening to us very clearly,” she said. “As an environmental activist myself, I feel like the time for activism is when you don’t have a seat at the table. We have a seat at the table.”
The time for activism is when you don’t have a seat at the table. We have a seat at the table.
Christine Cooley, Sustainable Tacoma Commission chairwoman
Commissioners tend to share similar environmental values, so the resignations represent a difference in opinion about how to accomplish the same goals.
“The work of trying to reduce our impacts on the environment while still having great neighborhoods and a prosperous economy, it does take slow and steady progress, and it takes people fighting within city hall and outside City Hall,” City Councilman Ryan Mello said.
“If they don’t feel they can be effective from the inside City Hall, then I hope they don’t give up fighting from the outside.”
Mello said the commission was not created to consider the effects of specific development proposals. Unless there is a question about rezoning, Tacoma’s Planning Commission also won’t get a say on the methanol project, which is a port proposal the city is charged with evaluating through an environmental impact study.
The resignations of Higley and Moore reflect the exasperation of other Tacoma environmentalists with the official scrutiny of the almost 2-year-old proposal.
Northwest Innovation Works in February put the project on hold because it was surprised by the depth of opposition to its proposal.
Higley wrote in his resignation letter that he did not want the Sustainable Tacoma Commission to become a sort of “greenwashing” for projects he views as environmentally harmful.
Proponents have touted the Tacoma methanol proposal as a cleaner way to make methanol, a product used by Chinese companies to manufacture plastic.
Critics argue the plant would damage to the environment because it would draw energy from fracked natural gas to make non-biodegradable plastics that could become lasting pollution.
“An increased supply of methanol will facilitate the production of even more plastic, which has global environmental impacts from cradle to grave,” Higley said when he announced his resignation.
For more information on the Sustainable Tacoma Commission or to volunteer for it, go to cityoftacoma.org or call 253-591-5771