A month has passed since the company that’s planning to build a controversial $3.4 billion gas-to-methanol plant on the Tacoma Tideflats pressed the pause button.
Northwest Innovation Works appealed to the public’s patience when it said in a Feb. 19 press release that it was “surprised by the tone and substance” of the resistance and was calling for a break from the city’s environmental review “to engage the Tacoma community in further dialogue.”
But little has happened since then to suggest a meaningful dialogue is imminent, or that the tone of the opposition will mellow. The Chinese-backed company hasn’t given evidence that it’s starting conversations. It has gone mostly silent, turning its attention to a smaller sister methanol plant in Southwest Washington.
Meanwhile, the citizen rebellion has used the timeout to fortify the barricades, rethink strategy and get better organized.
The Redline Tacoma group launched a red sweater protest campaign, scheduled fundraisers and hosted a speaker to discuss the environmental and health impacts of methanol production. The Save Tacoma Water group is collecting signatures for a proposed charter amendment requiring voters to approve any new industry that would consume more than 1 million gallons of water a day.
Northwest Innovation had an opportunity last week to stem the tide by engaging in dialogue with more than 100 Pierce County residents and opinion shapers.
A City Club of Tacoma panel, called “Proposed Methanol Plant: Just the Facts,” provided an opening for the company to address a wide range of questions surrounding its 125-acre lease with the Port of Tacoma.
Audience members hoped to hear more than the generalities they’ve heard to date. It’s well known by now that the company promises to reduce global carbon emissions by harnessing clean, new technology and producing methanol from natural gas in the U.S., rather than coal in China.
Unfortunately, the forum went sideways after Northwest Innovation President Murray “Vee” Godley canceled and sent a junior officer in his place.
Audience frustration grew palpably as Philip Eastland, a chemical engineer and VP of technology, gave depthless answers to several questions. Others he deflected because he apparently didn’t feel qualified to respond.
In Eastland’s defense, the luncheon wasn’t geared for the kind of highly technical information that’s his expertise; he acknowledged he would do better if he could draw on a white board in a small-group setting.
The format was also tilted against him, with the other three panel members voicing grave doubts if not outright disdain for a Tacoma methanol plant. An event like this works best when balanced with pro, con and neutral parties.
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The frustration boiled over in an outburst of grandstanding by one elected official in the crowd. “Go away, get your act together and don’t come back until you’re ready to answer some of these basic questions,” Brian Flint, board chairman of Tacoma Public Utilities, scolded Eastland.
The ad hominem attack was inappropriate and unnecessarily nasty, but his underlying message had merit.
Tacoma has waited long enough for a comprehensive communication plan. Northwest Innovation should figure out how to:
▪ Disseminate more details about what makes its methanation process so cutting-edge, including how resource consumption, plant emissions and waste byproducts compare to conventional technology.
▪ Share what it knows about spills, explosions, natural disasters and other potential hazards, and spell out what won’t be knowable until the environmental review runs its course.
▪ Give an inventory of what Tacoma would gain by hosting this plant, including tax revenues, wages and benefits, and prospects for a unionized work force.
▪ Talk about the multinational structure of the company and its accountability for anything that might go wrong.
▪ Set up a speakers bureau of company officials with different specialties.
▪ Provide good answers for questions it can answer immediately, and give a clear timeline for answers it is still researching.
A company spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that an economic impact analysis is underway and will be released “within the next several weeks.” She said the company also encourages people to read the recently completed environmental review of its Port of Kalama plant – with the caveat that the Tacoma operation isn’t directly comparable because of its larger scale and slight differences in design.
As for additional communication, she said: “We will participate in community meetings as it’s appropriate, and we are exploring other ways to engage the public to educate them on our project and provide a forum for them to get questions answered.”
If the company takes too long, it does so at its own peril. An information void always fills with something, be it misinformation, emotion or an irrepressible wave of citizen protest.