Newspaper asks court to halt LNG plant permits until safety studies’ release

The News Tribune has asked a state appellate court to halt all permitting and other work on Puget Sound Energy’s proposed Tideflats liquid natural gas plant until the project’s safety studies are released.

The request came in a court filing Tuesday in the utility company’s lawsuit seeking to keep the fire and siting reports filed with the city of Tacoma over the 30-acre, $275 million project from being released to the newspaper under a public records request. Puget Sound Energy has sued the newspaper, the city and the reporter who filed the request, claiming that allowing public access to the documents could increase the possibility of terrorist attack.

In August, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson ordered the records released after a seven-day waiting period, but the utility asked the appeals court to intervene and block the disclosure.

In a separate case in May, Cuthbertson had granted Puget Sound Energy an indefinite delay of his order to release a section of the safety studies to John Carlton, a member of the environmental activist group RedLine Tacoma. That document, Cuthbertson ruled, was to be withheld until the appeals process plays out.

The News Tribune’s attorney, Michele Earl-Hubbard, said in court that appeals of the lawsuit over the the newspaper’s public-records request could drag on for years, well past the plant’s scheduled 2019 opening date.

“Providing access to the records after the plant is built and operating will be of little value,” Earl-Hubbard wrote in Tuesday’s filing, “as the crucial disclosure window for them is now while permitting and application decisions can still be evaluated and affected.”

Her filing alleges PSE “deliberately delayed” filing its appeals in the Carlton case “while at the same time pushing forward on the project.” It asks appeals courts to make an expedited review and to limit the terms of any decision that would hold up the records’ release during appeals.

“PSE cannot have it both ways,” Earl-Hubbard wrote. “If PSE wishes a stay of disclosure of these essential documents, such a stay must be conditioned on a stay of all activity on the project until the stay of disclosure is finally lifted and the records have been disclosed.”

Karen Peterson, executive editor of The News Tribune, said the request takes into account the importance of full public disclosure about the controversial project.

“A Superior Court judge has said twice that the public should have access to this important safety information,” Peterson said. “It’s only right that the public be fully informed while there’s still time to weigh in — and before the plant is built.”

The request follows a similar Aug. 26 filing by public-records activist Arthur West in the appeal of Carlton’s records request.

In that filing, West wrote, “basic principles of equity and the overriding public interest in the integrity and legitimacy of the environmental review process” requires any delay of disclosing that document be attached to “a corresponding stay on any further permits, approvals or irrevocable commitments of resources” toward the project.

Puget Sound Energy has not responded to either filing but faces a Thursday deadline in each appeals court case. An attorney for the utility did not respond to a request for comment.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally