Beyond the Tacoma Tideflats, methanol progress mixed

While Tacoma’s controversial proposed methanol plant remains on hold, the China-backed company behind the project is encountering less vocal opposition to its push to build two similar, smaller facilities in rural areas along the Columbia River, 100 miles south.

In Kalama, public reaction has been “relatively quiet” since a nearly 500-page draft of the environmental review for a plant proposed for that city’s port became public this month, Cowlitz County building and planning director Elaine Placido said this week.

Across the river, the methanol plant slated for Port of St. Helens property near Clatskanie is stalled in real-estate negotiations. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has not received permit applications for it.

A top official in Columbia County, Oregon, said he hopes the delay keeps him from having to take a public stand for a while.

“I’m in an election cycle and would just as soon leave it alone if I don’t have to talk about it,” said Tony Hyde, chairman of Columbia County commissioners. “Why kick it? It may never come to fruition unless they have a lease agreement, and then we’ll have something to talk about.”

Each of the proposed plants would produce 3.6 million tons of methanol a year. That’s half the output planned for the Tacoma facility, which would be the largest methanol plant in the world.

Northwest Innovation Works officials suspended the Tacoma proposal after public protests, the announcement of an anti-methanol ballot initiative and about 1,000 objections lodged with the city.

However, the notion of building the company’s first methanol plant in Kalama has made substantial progress.

There, the draft environmental report of the plant’s impact is up for public input until April 18. A single public hearing is set for March 22 in the gym of Kalama’s high school, which last received significant outside attention as a filming location for the original “Twilight” movie.

The final version of the study will help determine whether the plant’s 17 required permits will be issued by the government agencies, from local to federal, that must approve the project before construction can legally start.

Unlike in Tacoma, the same port commission that made the lease deal to build the $1.8 billion Kalama plant is helping lead the environmental review. Port of Kalama commission president Alan Basso said Thursday he is “absolutely” in favor of the plant for the economic benefits it would bring without increasing truck or train traffic.

“I think it is going to be a clean plant,” Basso said, “and the opportunity for people to work down there is going to be great.”

The Kalama plant bears several similarities to Tacoma’s.

Both would rely on several miles of new underground pipeline to bring in natural gas from the Williams Co.’s northwest gas artery. The manufacturing process described by Northwest Innovation Works as a boon to limiting emissions would require much more electricity than local utilities can provide, and all the methanol produced there would travel to factories in China on dozens of tanker ships each year.

Although there has been a relatively small reaction to the Kalama proposal — the public discussion period for the scope of its environmental review drew just 66 written comments — it has, like Tacoma’s, been received critically by local environmental activists.

They question the plant’s demands on local resources, its potential pollution and the wisdom of abetting the global manufacture of plastics.

“There’s a lot of unknowns surrounding methanol production,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, senior organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper, an Oregon group that opposes both riverfront methanol proposals. “And it seems as if this project is just a route to exploit cheap natural gas production in the United States to make more plastics in China, and that’s a huge concern.”

She and others on both sides of the issue say they’re now busy scrutinizing the findings of the voluminous environmental assessment, to which are attached more than 1,000 pages of appendices.


The study was written mostly by Federal Way-based BergerABAM under a contract that Northwest Innovation Works will fund.

It measures the potential consequences of building the methanol plant under the newly designed manufacturing process the company has said it plans to build. It then compares those findings to a process utilized by other methanol plants and to the effects of leaving the site undeveloped.

The new process, which Northwest Innovation Works credits British chemical company Johnson Matthey with developing, would use 201 megawatts of electricity for the Kalama plant. That would require upgrading the county power system and constructing an on-site 125-megawatt generator powered by natural gas.

Each day the plant ran at full capacity, it would use 4.8 million gallons of water from a new groundwater well and 5,600 gallons from local utilities, as well as 270 million cubic feet of natural gas.

Those system needs are about half the gas, water and power requirements in the Tacoma proposal.

The draft environmental study generally offers a favorable assessment of the effects of the plant’s resource requirements and potential for harmful pollution or disasters. Most of its 15 chapters end with a finding that the plant “would not result in unavoidable significant adverse impacts” in subject areas from air quality to geology and noise.

The study also includes a schematic of its footprint, which has not been provided for the Tacoma plant. The plant’s proposed footprint is near Interstate 5. Perhaps its most striking aspect would be the 245-foot flare tower from which a flame, visible to onlookers, will burn off remnant materials during a plant start-up or shutdown.

Tacoma chief planner Ian Munce said the Tacoma plant’s filings with the city haven’t included a map yet. He expects Northwest Innovation Works to provide one if the proposal advances to its own environmental study.

The Kalama review also provides one of the first publicly available scientific attempts to calculate the pollution Northwest Innovation Works’ methanol process would put out.

It says the plant’s yearly greenhouse-gas output under the new process would be an estimated 976,445 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent, including the emissions from the required new power plant.

That’s about the amount of greenhouse gases 207,054 typical passenger cars would emit in an average year of American driving, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate.

At a little over a quarter-ton of greenhouse gas per ton of methanol created, that pollution rate is about two-thirds of the estimate Northwest Innovation Works provided the Port of Tacoma in its 2013 lease proposal, which was based on earlier technology.

Much of the calculation is based on regional averages for electricity generation. The Kalama plant would have to rely on purchased power via the Cowlitz Public Utility District, which buys its electricity from a mix of sources.

The study also says the plant’s air pollution from diesel particulate — a carcinogen emitted by on-site equipment and ship traffic — could be higher than Washington’s acceptable impact level in some surrounding areas, primarily over the Columbia River.

Another concern noted in the study was the vulnerability of the 100-acre Kalama site to earthquakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used the land for years as a dumping ground for what it dredges up to keep the Columbia River shipping channel navigable. Its soils now are assessed as having a “moderate to high” risk of liquefaction during an earthquake.

Work to counter that could include building on driven piles, mixing the soil and using jet grouting to provide foundation support.

The document also discusses what would happen if the methanol plant wasn’t built, mainly in terms of how it would leave the real-estate parcel available for other heavy-industry development.

Miles Johnson, an attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, criticized how this aspect of the study was handled.

“We don’t think that leaves open the possibility that the Port of Kalama could attract projects that have less impacts to the river and to our climate,” he said.


The environmental study also mentions economic consequences of the Kalama proposal. If built as planned, the draft study says, the plant would provide a peak employment of 192 workers by 2019, when it is projected to be fully operational.

It says labor payroll during construction, with a peak of 1,001 temporary jobs, would total $158.9 million for the scheduled 26-month building time. Average income for the permanent jobs would be $71,000, “roughly $5,000 higher than a living wage for a family of four in Longview.”

Taking the $1.8 billion construction estimate as the plant’s value, the study estimates the plant would bring Cowlitz County $16.47 million in property-tax revenues during its first year of operation, an 18 percent increase over its current revenues.

Basso, the port commission president, said the commercial aspects of the proposal persuaded him to support it.

“The more different types of businesses we have, the better off we’re going to be as a state, as a region of the state,” he said. “If there’s any economic downturns, that sort of thing, we’re going to be able to weather it a little bit better.”

Across the Columbia, the Oregon county commissioner who declined to take a position spoke of the dollars attached to the on-hold Port of St. Helens methanol proposition.

“Let’s put it this way,” Hyde said. “They’re looking at a $4 billion investment. Our entire county’s net worth is $4.5 billion. That should tell you quite a bit.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally