‘Who is Tacoma?’ Fight over future of the port might very well tell

LNG pipeline construction in Fife draws noisy protest from Puyallup Tribe

The Puget Sound Energy liquified natural gas plant on Tacoma's Tideflats. In the file video from July 17, 2017, dozens of Puyallup tribal members march against the construction of the LNG pipeline in Fife.
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The Puget Sound Energy liquified natural gas plant on Tacoma's Tideflats. In the file video from July 17, 2017, dozens of Puyallup tribal members march against the construction of the LNG pipeline in Fife.

From a certain angle, it looks like the Port of Tacoma is on the ropes, facing potential blows to the way it does business from the city and a growing Tacoma environmental movement.

In the last two years, a groundswell of anti-fossil fuel sentiment has taken hold, bolstered by the defeat of a methanol plant that was proposed to be built on the Tideflats and then provoked, again, by current plans to build a liquefied natural gas plant there.

Neighbors of the port have taken up arms, joining fledgling environmental groups and studying up on land-use planning with the goal of fighting the noise, smells and perceived pollution that wafts up from the port’s businesses.

The port commission has found more people regularly attending its midday meetings and has encountered more citizens opposing its business decisions. It’s been challenged to be more transparent, and after urging by members of the City Council, agreed to get behind a years-long planning process that will include many different community voices helping to determine what the future of Tacoma’s port will be.

Environmentalists and port neighbors-turned-activists say the outcome of that planning process ultimately will decide whether the City of Destiny leaves its polluted “Tacoma aroma” past behind it.

“I think there is kind of this false sense that Tacoma had put its dirty past in the past,” said Ann Locsin, a Northeast Tacoma resident who has fought against the methanol and LNG plants as well as a mining project on Marine View Drive. “We all watched the Asarco smokestack come tumbling down. We all watched the Kaiser stack come down. We’ve seen Point Ruston become this amazing place.

“I think there was this sense that Tacoma has changed, we’re moving in a different direction, and when the world’s largest methanol plant was proposed, it really just struck a chord in people because they don’t want to ever be that ‘Tacoma aroma’ laughingstock place again. I think that’s a huge issue, too — who is Tacoma?”

For their part, port officials have given some ground in recent weeks, but they remain uneasy about proposed stop-gap regulations that include a blanket ban for some industries on the Tideflats. The port has instructed its Tacoma law firm to lobby its case and maintains that too many restrictions might hurt one of Pierce County’s chief economic engines. Port officials and their supporters have long argued that heavy industries on the Tideflats provide thousands of family-wage jobs.

They warn against moving too far too fast.

“These interim regulations are very divisive,” said Don Meyer, a member of the port commission. “That process should stop, and we should focus on setting up a subarea plan process that allows the right people to sit at the table, to be more inclusive. This is a recipe for disaster, resulting in lawsuits, and I don’t want to see taxpayers end up funding a lot of resources in a planning process that I think is flawed.”

While Meyer calls for slowing down, Locsin, her Northeast neighbors and Tacoma’s environmentalists and progressives have leaned in, becoming aggressively informed, showing up to meetings and challenging land-use decisions.

In Northeast Tacoma, they’ve deployed air-quality monitors and filed official paperwork with the city requesting that zoning on the Tideflats be downgraded to create a buffer between their houses and the heavy industry east of the Hylebos Waterway.

Across town, the city’s planning commission has recommended interim rules that could severely limit in the short-term what sort of new heavy industry can take place at the port. Those regulations are aimed at restricting some of the most intense uses there, and could go into effect in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the lengthy planning process to map out long-term land use on the Tideflats — initially resisted by the port — is picking up steam.

That roughly $1 million undertaking, known as the Tideflats subarea plan process, could now include the Puyallup Tribe as an equal partner along with the port and the city. Initially, the port commission had opposed the tribe’s role as an equal player, saying it could violate the 1990 land claims settlement agreement between the tribe, the city, the port, the federal government and other agencies.

Recently, the port walked that back. An Aug. 30 letter from port commission Chairman Dick Marzano to Tribal Council Chairman Bill Sterud said the port welcomed the tribe’s input as a partner. The tribe, for its part, has said it wants to be involved at a high level and is willing to contribute $200,000 to the subarea-plan process.

“I realize as you do that we will have issues that we will disagree on, but I am also confident that we will have more areas of agreement,” Marzano wrote in his letter. “The Port of Tacoma will approach this relationship with the Tribe on a government-to-government basis based on our understanding of the Tribe’s preference.”

For its part, the port has said the priority for its vacant properties is to maintain and grow its maritime cargo business. It wants to use its non-waterfront properties to support that cargo industry. A spokesman said the port is working toward a greener future, and the commission is working on a goal to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Port on the defense

For environmentalists and the more progressive among Tacoma’s elected and appointed leaders, these are all signs pointing in the right direction. Many of them envision a future Tacoma free of the storage and shipping of fossil fuels. They feel that many of the heavy-industrial uses have no place in a modern, urbanized port that abuts residential neighborhoods.

“We have and will continue to protect these manufacturing and industrial lands for job creation,” said City Councilman Ryan Mello, who initially proposed the interim land-use rules at the Tideflats as a way to expeditiously block certain uses. “The conversation this community has been wanting to have for a good, long time is about what are those appropriate uses within this huge area that is most appropriate for an urban port like ours.”

As that political set has gained influence and seeks to restrict certain uses, the century-old port and its diverse businesses have been forced into a defensive crouch.

Having acquiesced to the creation of the long-term subarea plan and the tribe’s full involvement in it, the port is now up against Tacoma’s proposed interim regulations, a process that is controlled entirely by the city and in which the port has no decision-making power.

The city’s planning commission, which is drafting the interim regulations, has come back with a list of suggested bans: No new coal terminals or bulk storage, oil or other fossil fuel terminals or bulk storage, chemical manufacture or storage, smelters, or mining operations.

That restrictive list made port officials nervous, and they got their lawyers on the case.

Carolyn Lake, of the Goodstein Law Group, sent the city a lengthy letter explaining why banning some of those industries could be legally challenged, and pointing out court rulings that have overturned bans on fossil-fuel transportation and development in Spokane and Portland.

“We again urge that instead of spending time, money and effort on legally risky interim regulations, Tacoma is urged to devote its finite energies and resources to the subarea planning process,” Lake wrote in her conclusion.

The letter, heavy with references to court precedents, sounded like a potential precursor to legal action, but port spokeswoman Tara Mattina said last month that lawsuits require approval from the port commissioners.

“Nothing like that is scheduled or has been proposed for an upcoming agenda,” Mattina said.

The interim regulations

The city is holding a public hearing on the interim regulations on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center. Scores of people on all sides of the issue, including port officials, are expected to show up and comment.

There are four key portions of the interim regulations:

  • Expanded notification for heavy-industrial projects. That means public notice for heavy industrial-use permits would be extended to taxpayers that are 2,500 feet, or close to half a mile, from the project property.
  • New non-industrial uses in the port would be banned, and existing non-industrial uses would be prohibited from expanding. Non-industrial includes all residential uses, care facilities, high-intensity parks or event centers, airports, hospitals and schools, as well as many other uses. This includes the privately run Northwest Detention Center, which houses roughly 1,500 immigrant detainees.
  • The prohibition of new residential development, including the platting and subdivision of land, on the slopes above Marine View Drive. This rule wouldn’t be intended to stop existing developments from expanding, remodeling or adding accessory uses.
  • A ban on new coal terminals and bulk storage facilities; oil or other liquefied fossil-fuel terminals, bulk storage, manufacturing, production, processing or refining; bulk chemical storage, production or processing, including acid manufacture; smelting; and mining or quarrying. These bans would not apply to existing uses (including Puget Sound Energy’s planned LNG plant), and these rules would not prevent existing heavy industrial uses from expanding.

The proposed rules could look completely different by the time the City Council votes on them, and the port and its businesses have already won slight concessions.

Some industrial uses that were proposed to be banned have already been removed from the list. For those industrial uses that are recommended to be banned, earlier drafts of the rules suggested limiting the expansion of existing facilities to 10 percent growth. Now, their ability to grow is unlimited — and any project that has applied for and is in the process of getting permits counts as an “existing” use.

All-out bans on certain types of new projects paired with the potential unbridled expansion of existing facilities is not what Locsin and her neighbors had in mind, she said. She fears the process has already become politicized.

“We never wanted to say, ‘No more metal-recycling facilities in the port of Tacoma.’ We just wanted to say, ‘Is there a way to have them not be directly next door to homes?’” Locsin said. “The only thing that helps us is that we’re not going to lay awake at night going, ‘When is the next large methanol plant going to be proposed?’ Because you get tired.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud