LNG and improving port transparency: We asked port commission candidates about both

The future of the Port of Tacoma and what that looks like is top of mind for the six candidates running for two open seats on the Port of Tacoma commission.

Issues with transparency and community outreach in regard to the port’s operations and property management have been topics raised repeatedly in public comment periods, both at port commission meetings and also Tacoma City Council meetings.

Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant project, now facing a legal challenge as it makes its way through permitting, has been a focal point in taking those issues to the next level.

During two separate editorial board meetings with The News Tribune earlier this month, we asked port candidates about LNG and their views of how the port could improve community relations and outreach.

Position 3 candidates Frank Boykin, Justin Camarata and Deanna Keller are seeking the seat being vacated by Commission Vice President Don Johnson, whose term ends in December.

Position 5 candidates Kristin Ang, Dave Bryant and Shelly Schlumpf are seeking the seat being vacated by Commission President Clare Petrich, whose term ends in December.

Both spots are four-year, nonpartisan terms. The top two vote getters in each race in the Aug. 6 primary will move on to November’s general election.

The answers have been edited for length:

Where do you stand on the LNG project at the port and why?

Position 3 candidates

Boykin: I really support looking at cleaner energy sources, not just here, but certainly here and around the Puget Sound region.

I also believe we should be moving away from petroleum-based energy sources like diesel. This is a transitory period. This is not a panacea, any more than this is how the story ends.

I can only be thoughtful and rely on those who have actually shown up with credentials to help us make the difficult decision.

I am in favor of the project moving forward. I believe that we should continue to look at this again, as a transitory scenario. This is better than what we have right now. And I absolutely believe when we have an opportunity to look at different or cleaner energy sources, we absolutely should move toward sustainability in that situation as well. Consistency is very important with all the right reasons to protect the community, and protect really the mission of the port, which is ensuring that we have ships and cargo, more business and more jobs with this community to move forward.

Camarata: I don’t believe LNG is a good project for Tacoma.

There are all kinds of land rights that are at play with this. It is ultimately a fossil fuel. We signed a very long-term lease for it at a time where, again, by even some of their own estimates, this is a technology in decline that’s not going to be widely used or implemented two or three decades from now.

So I think there are a number of problems with it. Yes, it does burn cleaner at the site of consumption. But there’s a number of arguments that I don’t feel are particularly good. One of them being that it’s cleaner at the docks, because in a lot of these ships that are being retrofitted, they’re still using two engines. And so what will happen is that the ship will leave the dock and not switch to the LNG engine until about 100 miles away. And so that means all of the problems with diesel are still happening at the actual terminals.

I understand some of the arguments for it. But I don’t support it. And it’s not the direction the port needs to go.

Keller: I believe that it’s a transitionary fuel. I did look at (PSE’s) environmental impact study ... and it is better than what we’ve got going now. We have workers at the port breathing in diesel particulates and bunker oil fumes.

We need to find, as an employer, some way to be able to make it healthier for people at the port, not just the people who are working there, but also the people living around there.

It’s better all the way across — everything that I’ve read, all the research that I’ve read — it is better at this point in time. We still need to be looking for other ways, cleaner ways to be able to fuel. But it’s almost like, let’s say that someone’s mother has cancer, and you use the best possible technology to fight that cancer. You don’t wait 20 years for the next best medication, you do what you can right now to be able to make it better right now while you’re looking forward for the next piece of that.

Position 5 candidates

Ang: I am not supportive of the project based on environmental and economic reasons.

The LNG project is a case study of what the port’s weakness is, which is a lack of comprehensive public engagement plan. But also it showed its fractured relationship with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, which is an economic engine in itself. They should actually be developing projects together.

Environmentally, because of the methane slippage and the fracking ... it’s not better for our environment, for the greenhouse gas emissions.

Second is the economics. It’s subsidized ... with ratepayers’ money. If this is such a temporary solution, how will we really get our rate of return?

The two TOTE ships when they’re here, they’re on shore power, and this refinery plant will be continually operating and emitting pollution into the air. So in my opinion, it’s not a win for Tacoma. The port should actually have the basis of how this will really affect our economy.

We can increase our maritime strength and protect jobs. People are still accepting of the shipping industry. And I would still focus on that as a core strength, rather than these projects that have brought us into conflict.

Bryant: (LNG) is a good step in the process, something we need to be doing. We need to be supporting our customers that bring money into the port to bring goods into the port. And there are a lot of ports around the world. That is their big drive — to get people off bunker fuel and on to natural gas. And the reason that natural gas is an easy step for them is they don’t need to do the big capital investment of building the new ships with new systems.

By going to LNG, you get away from the real risks, and that’s why all the rest of the ports around the world are moving in this direction, why the ferry system is very seriously looking at going to natural gas for their conversions, by cabs in Seattle, all kinds of organizations are looking to go to natural gas. You can get away from the worry of hauling millions of gallons of oil out, and tanks, and having their ships collide and having an extreme ecological disaster as has happened before.

It doesn’t fix every problem, but it provides a huge amount of cleanup. So I think it’s the right approach now. It’s not the final approach.

Schlumpf: I support the LNG plant.

From what I have learned, that’s the best science that we have available right now. In another 10 or 15 years, is it going to be electrified or solar panels? Maybe. I think that’s great if we can even do better with emissions. So I like what I’m hearing as I’m learning about the LNG plant.

I grew up around the diesel trucks. And I don’t like the diesel emissions that come out of all those trucks. Think about all the trucks that are in the queues down in the port, not to mention the ships that are coming in. You can taste and feel that grit. And I know that that’s what the people at the port are breathing in.

I am not a big diesel fan, so if we are moving away from that, I think that’s a good thing. But at the end of the day, there has to be the transition period. And because we don’t want to jeopardize those jobs, we need to make sure that we still have those family wage jobs, and that we can grow those jobs.

What would you do to boost port outreach and transparency with the public?

Position 3 candidates

Boykin: I think beyond what is really clear about using additional communication, social channels, to spread the message, I think the most impactful thing is really changing how the leadership actually engages community.

I think what has been not just called out but actually demonstrated is that if you look at nine or 10 community engagements, where you may see any elected officials, the likelihood that you’ve seen four commissioners, in your own community spaces, whatever that is, whatever your particular personal endeavor to give back, if you happen to see leadership in those spaces, it tends to be unusual.

It’s also just what it is that I believe has become the tone of what people see as a distance where they don’t see themselves inside of what the port actually offers.

You make it a point where your commitment means that you are driving some very new way of engagement. Maybe what we do is conversational cafes. So I’m there in those untraditional spaces ... and people actually learn what the port does, how it benefits them, where it shows up and what the impact is, so there is no scenario where we are not closing this gap of distance.

Camarata: I think one of the ways that we need a serious culture change with the port is having more ongoing regular dialogue with the community groups.

One of the things that I think is really important is not just engagement through things like town halls, but also that, as part of government, there’s equitable delivery of outreach. And yes, sometimes that means social media and the channels like that. But it also sometimes means going to people where they are actually and engaging them in the ways that they need to be engaged with.

Simply saying we’re going to do a town hall at 3 on a Thursday … doing things while working people can’t often attend … it’s not going to be the solution. Sometimes it means you have to go to those people’s places of worship, to their homes, to their union halls, to any number of places like that. You have to be intentional about reaching out to them and talking about why it matters for them and their health and their family’s well being.

So, if we were very intentional about that, and understood that local government has to serve communities equitably, and not just equally, then I think that would be a good step.

Keller: I’m taking a look at all kinds of different ways to communicate. When I was a school principal, we had newsletters going out. We had situations where we brought people in to talk. I talked with Connie Ladenburg a little bit about this, and she said it might be a great idea to have port commissioners on a quarterly basis go spread out among the county and have a town hall meeting. Maybe a newsletter — what’s happening here at the port.

My business does an awful lot with marketing. So I understand about marketing, and I know how to get the word out. There are a variety of different ways. Social media is a great way to do that as well.

I would like to be able to work more as a commissioner with the public affairs office in finding ways to get the word out a lot better.

Position 5 candidates

Ang: People want to have a voice at the port, and people want transparency, and that’s good.

This will require a comprehensive public engagement plan, not just a one off. This will actually be ongoing, very much studied, very much involving a lot of people. And I think in order for people to be more transparent, that’s where I believe the strengthening of partnerships and connections to the community, organizations, nonprofits, neighborhood councils, particularly the educational institutions, that’s where I’m putting my focus.

The more people that are connected to the port, the more that they feel they have an ownership to it. And it’s rightfully so because it is a public port for public benefits and public lands. The more people are connected to it, the more likely it will be transparent, and the more people will help it.

But also, as a port commissioner, I think you should be an ambassador for your port. And so you should be able to go out into the communities and present and let everybody know what’s going on. And also for problems … it’s OK to ask for help, to ask your community ... like “this is what we’re facing, what could be the solutions?”

Bryant: I think it is very, very important ... public visibility on what the port is doing, planning, all the rest. The port does publish a strategic plan. I think there needs to be a concerted effort to get sections of that published in something like The News Tribune, take sections do that as a weekly basis, maybe a Sunday supplement, put those out there so people see it.

We need to make sure that people understand the benefit, the benefit that their tax money is going into.

In reaching out to the community, there are a lot of organizations out there that we really should be engaging with, as I’ve gone and talked to various Chamber of Commerce groups, other organizations in the community ... they have not had port commissioners coming and joining those organizations, giving presentations, etc. And that’s a really good way to reach out. But there’s a number of those methods that could very much help in visibility, and I would take that on.

Schlumpf: In my candidacy, I have heard a lot about the communication. What’s been strange for me is that I felt that the port communicated well.

The port commissioners are on task with their messaging about certain issues. But it is becoming clear as I go in and talk to these labor organizations that there is not clear communication. I do believe that there is an issue with understanding what the port issues are. I don’t know that they understand the community issues. I don’t know that they can relate to that. And so, you know, as I’m kind of sitting back and thinking, how could this be better communicated?

I’ve tried to be really concise about saying, “here’s what a port really does. It’s like three concentric circles. And you have a delivery, distribution and community.”

This is what I’m looking at: If I were elected, how could I better understand the community needs and then connect that to the port? We all want good communities and quality of life. And we want a port that is very successful and can continue to provide those family wage jobs.

Even though I saw (commissioners) out in the public, and they were engaging with me all the time, what is that breakdown? Because I believe it is there.