Big, gray — and safe? Facts behind Tacoma’s LNG plant

Pipelines run from the offshore docking station to the four LNG tanks capable of holding 2.5 billion cubic feet of LNG apiece as shown at the Dominion Liquified Natural Gas facility in Cove Point, Md.
Pipelines run from the offshore docking station to the four LNG tanks capable of holding 2.5 billion cubic feet of LNG apiece as shown at the Dominion Liquified Natural Gas facility in Cove Point, Md. AP file, 2003

Picture this: a massive new cylindrical storage tank rising out of the Tideflats, nearly as tall as the Tacoma Dome and almost as wide as it is high.

Give it a dark, concrete gray shade, as suggested in official documents. They also say to ring it with a few stands of trees and some boulders to offset the visual impact a little.

This, according to official records, is the most visually striking aspect of the 30-acre liquefied natural gas production plant Puget Sound Energy wants to build. Starting in 2019, the facility is to keep the tank filled with 8 million gallons of LNG to supply cleaner fuel to ships and meet rising gas demands of utility customers.

This has conjured a host of safety concerns, especially with local environmental activists who organized to turn back the larger methanol plant proposed for the port. Competing blast zone maps have been drawn, and terrorism fears have been cited.

In street protests, the grass-roots group RedLine Tacoma waves signs claiming the LNG plant is too dangerous to be within half a mile of the city’s homes and businesses. A slice of Northeast Tacoma’s residential area lies within that distance, and the Tideflats immigration detention facility and downtown are 2 miles away.

The utility contends sophisticated safety modeling proves the plant has no blast zone that would affect anyone beyond its property line. However, the utility is in a court fight resisting disclosure of records to prove the point, contending that release of the documents would be a security risk.

Here’s what we know so far about the project and the risks associated with LNG:

Q. What’s being proposed, exactly?

A. Puget Sound Energy, a privately held utility company owned by a consortium of Australian and Canadian firms, signed a 25-year lease in 2014 for 30 acres of Port of Tacoma land, mainly the site where the Naval Reserve Center once stood. PCC Logistics was the most recent tenant.

The utility is renting the property from the port for $1.75 million a year during construction and $2.5 million a year once the plant starts running.

It will pipe in natural gas and chill it into a denser liquid form. The $275 million plant will produce 250,000 gallons of LNG a day, giving the plant a production capacity of more than 90 million gallons — or nearly 150,000 tons — of LNG a year.

At 140 feet in height, just 12 feet shorter than the Tacoma Dome, the plant’s storage tank would be “substantially taller and more massive in form” than tanks now at the port, according to an environmental impact statement completed under city of Tacoma supervision in November.

The facility also would have two 80-foot-tall towers, a flare that would burn at about the same height and a new dock to load LNG onto ships on the Blair Waterway.

At 140 feet in height, just 12 feet shorter than the Tacoma Dome, the plant’s storage tank would be “substantially taller and more massive in form” than tanks now at the port, according to an environmental impact statement completed under city of Tacoma supervision in November. Alex Brandon AP file, 2007

Q. What’s the LNG to be used for?

A. As motor fuel, LNG is about two-thirds as efficient as diesel fuel, but is cheaper and burns cleaner.

City records show about 39 million gallons a year, about 45 percent of the plant’s production capacity, would fuel two Totem Ocean Trailer Express ships that run the regular Tacoma-Anchorage route and are being converted to LNG to cut pollution. The ships now run on marine bunker fuel, a diesel-based mix regarded as a heavy pollutant.

Utility customers would use another 6 million gallons a year, drawn on six peak-demand days, said Jim Hogan, PSE’s project manager for the plant. That LNG would be warmed in a hot-water “vaporizer” on the plant site, scented with commercial methane’s telltale odor for safety and piped out as gas for home and commercial use.

On those days, when the full storage tank is being drawn down, the plant won’t be in production, Hogan said.

The rest of the LNG, about 45 percent of the plant’s output, is projected to be sold to trucks and ships that convert from diesel and marine bunker fuel to run on LNG, Hogan said. All ships other than TOTE’s vessels would tank up with LNG from a fuel barge loaded at the dockside, Hogan said, similar to the process currently used to load marine bunker fuel.

Hogan said the plant’s current design doesn’t include infrastructure to fill such a barge, and that adding one would take two years.

“If that customer doesn’t materialize, we’ll just run the plant at a lower production rate,” Hogan said.

Q. Will the plant be producing LNG for export?

A. Hogan says no, not now or in the future.

“The plant is just not big enough,” he said.

Its annual production would fill just three of the most typical size LNG tankers now used. Nearly half of that couldn’t be sent away, because it’s already under contract for TOTE’s ships. The plant’s 30 acres isn’t enough to build up production lines or storage tanks to make export capacity possible, Hogan said. He added that the bottom-line cost wouldn’t justify it either.

“The export business is just not an option, both economically and from a reality standpoint,” he said.

Q. Is it safe to have that much LNG within a city?

A. This is a focus of the debate over whether the plant should be built, and a question that’s far from resolved.

There are 115 domestic LNG plants currently in operation in the United States, according to records of the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Some have been running for decades.

The industry’s “track record is quite good, in terms of safety,” said Guy Colonna, division director for the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit codes and standards organization that wrote the rules the federal authorities apply.

The association’s standard for LNG includes explicit provisions for where plants can be safely located and how potential dangers, such as vapor clouds or liquid gas spills, must be accounted for.

“They have a pretty good safety record because they’re following some fairly effective industry practices,” Colonna said.

One plant, Colonna said, has operated in a densely developed section of the Boston area for decades without a major incident. Near it are other industrial buildings, as well as rowhouses, commercial strips and a Costco.

The proximity has caused some unease over the years, according to a 2003 Boston Globe story that described area residents’ fears. A 2010 Boston Magazine story outlined safety precautions required for that plant, including of a heavy degree of U.S. Coast Guard supervision over its import shipments. Each LNG tanker’s arrival to the plant elicits a multiagency response and a bridge closure, among other security measures.

But experts said the potential risk of the fuel is manageable.

“It’s less dangerous than a lot of stuff out there,” said LNG expert Kent Bayazitoglu, director of market analytics for Houston-based energy consulting firm Gelber and Associates, “in large part because the LNG itself is not very flammable. It’s not as flammable, I’d say, as even gasoline. ...

“Generally speaking, it’s a lot less combustible than a lot of other fuels out there,” he added.

The PSE project’s environmental impact statement states, “only two LNG safety-related incidents have occurred that resulted in adverse effects to the public or environment.”

It lists a 1944 fire in Cleveland in which 130 people were killed and another in 1979 in Maryland with a single fatality. Both were attributed to now-obsolete construction practices.

The statement does not mention two other prominent LNG-related incidents:

▪ A 1973 gas explosion during repair of an empty LNG tank in Staten Island, New York, that killed 40 workers — later officially categorized as a construction accident, not an LNG problem.

▪ A March 2014 explosion at an LNG plant in Plymouth, in Eastern Washington, built in the 1970s. There, five workers were hurt and hundreds of homes evacuated.

RedLine Tacoma also cites a May terrorist attack on an LNG plant in Baghdad, in which reports said at least seven police officers and three guards were killed in bomb blasts, as evidence of the industry’s risks. ISIS has claimed credit for that attack. Fires set at the plant in the attack burned for a time afterward.

An explosion Monday night at a natural gas plant in Mississippi is under investigation, but that plant does not handle LNG.

Q. That Plymouth explosion was very near us, and very recent. What was the problem there?

A. According to a Utilities and Trade Commission report released in May, the plant’s operator, Williams Northwest Pipeline, replaced some valves with plastic and tape during a repair. That allowed oxygen to infiltrate the system, mix with the pre-liquefied gas and remain trapped in a pipe, where it ignited during a plant start-up and exploded.

Reports said the force was felt 6 miles away.

The pipe shattered and sprayed heavy chunks of shrapnel hundreds of yards, piercing the hull of one of the plant’s two 90-foot-tall LNG storage tanks, each of which has a 14 million gallon capacity. The tank didn’t explode. Damages and repairs have been estimated at $70 million.

Rolland Watt, the fire chief for Benton County Fire District 6, said in an interview with The News Tribune that he saw the wreckage after the explosion, including gas pipes struck by debris that “bent ’em in half” but did not break them.

“I learned a lot about LNG during and after that event,” Watt said.

He said he drives within half a mile of the LNG facility every day. He was asked what he thinks about it still operating in his district.

“Honestly, I’m just not concerned about it, knowing what I know now,” he said.

Watt said he learned that even if a storage tank is ruptured, LNG vaporizes with the temperature change. As a gas, it “has no choice but to go straight up” where it can’t cause a fire, he said, although it causes atmospheric damage like other greenhouse gases.

The fire chief said the thickness of the insulated tanks and the frigid temperature required to keep LNG liquid — more than 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit — make him unconcerned about ground-level explosions from the tanks, even from a direct collision.

He called the idea of an explosion “impossible.” Petroleum products in rail cars and tanker trucks are more likely to blow up than the LNG tanks, he said.

“You could have a jet motor blowing on that thing for six weeks and not do anything to it,” he said with a chuckle.

Q. How full will this tank be, and how is it being built?

A. The 8-million-gallon tank will be full of LNG most of the time, said Hogan, PSE’s project manager.

The environmental impact statement includes a diagram that shows it will have concrete walls around its inner tank, and that its concrete foundation will be built on seismic isolation devices. Grant Ringel, PSE’s spokesman, said the tank will be of “high-grade steel” and that the concrete walls will be three feet thick.

Q. Do other experts and the Tacoma Fire Department agree with this safety assessment?

A. Not universally.

Even decades into the industrial production of LNG, the federal government still is working out its dangers. At a video-recorded U.S. Department of Transportation workshop in May, experts discussed how LNG might be as vulnerable as other petrochemicals to explosions of vapor clouds from industrial leaks if the air near the plant is stagnant.

Last year, during a public debate over whether to build a larger LNG plant in Coos Bay, Oregon, two LNG scientists filed a detailed critique that faulted federal LNG policy for not matching the industry’s growth and diversification. The result, they wrote, sets a stage for disaster.

Among other problems, Jerry Havens of the University of Arkansas and James Venart of the University of New Brunswick wrote, current regulations for managing leaks could concentrate flammable vapors enough to foster severe explosions.

Additionally, they wrote, the variety of other chemicals and machinery at LNG fueling facilities creates the potential for “severe cascading effects,” including “catastrophic failure of the tank (or tanks).” Such a fire, they wrote, “would surely extend ... well beyond the facility property lines, to say nothing of the potential for catastrophic damage to the entire facility.”

Federal regulators denied that plant a construction permit in March, saying insufficient need for the project had been shown.

The PSE project’s environmental impact statement states, “only two LNG safety-related incidents have occurred that resulted in adverse effects to the public or environment.” Michael Stravato New York Times file, 2011

The environmental impact statement for the Tacoma facility says accident modeling “conclusively demonstrates” that any safety problem would “remain within the property lines of the proposed site.

“Keeping all spilled LNG (and any potential resulting flammable vapor clouds) within the property boundary eliminates the risk of off-site ignition,” the document states.

The information given to the Tacoma Fire Department by PSE that details these disaster scenario calculations remains subject to a lawsuit over whether it can be disclosed because of federal law that classifies the document as a security concern.

Hogan showed the binder of disaster scenarios to a reporter, but would not allow its contents to be photographed.

It contained, he said, 173 examinations of how specific incidents at the plant would play out, with the worst-case scenario entailing a collapse of the tank roof and the entire tank catching fire.

Q. That sounds pretty bad. How big is the blast zone?

A. According to the disaster binder, it would be contained within the site. Hogan said workers in the operations building, near East 11th Street and Alexander Avenue East, would be safe.

“Not that you’d want to, but somebody could stand out on 11th or Alexander if the plant was on fire,” he said.

The Fire Department said in 2015 that it would reopen a long-shuttered Tideflats firehouse to improve its ability to respond to port disasters. PSE is paying $5.5 million toward renovating the fire station and strengthening Taylor Way, per an agreement with city and port officials.

Fire Department spokesman Joe Meineke said in June the agency will wait to see the specifics of the LNG plant’s permit applications before it decides how many firefighters or trucks should be stationed nearby, or what kind of equipment and training will be needed. Operations costs won’t be known until those decisions are made, he said.

Q. What about the blast zone map that was in wide circulation, which showed a hazard radius extending into downtown Tacoma?

A. That was drawn by RedLine Tacoma activists opposed to the plant, who were making approximations from news reports about the facility.

PSE has drawn its own, with a 550-foot fire hazard radius, and contends the RedLine one is exaggerated. The detailed information now tied up in court would put better knowledge into circulation.

Q. What happens if LNG is spilled into Commencement Bay?

A. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, the main risks of large LNG spills on water include a pool fire or a vapor cloud. Eventually, the LNG will vaporize into methane gas, although the size of the spill will dictate how long that takes.

The report says the most serious safety and property problems would happen within 500 meters — about 1/3 of a mile — of a spill on the water.

Among its conclusions: “The likelihood of a natural gas cloud fully extending, especially in a near-shore urban area, and then igniting is very low. The cloud will most likely ignite from the first available ignition source and progress to a pool fire.”

Q. So what happens next with the proposal?

A. PSE is quietly filing for several of the more obscure permits — from state, local and federal agencies — required for its project, including demolition of existing buildings on the port site and utilities preparation work.

Its filings with the city can mostly be monitored at Tacoma’s permits search page by searching under the facility’s main addresses of 901 and 1001 Alexander Ave. E., although the site has four other addresses that have turned up on various permits.

The main action is likely to come in August from the state Shoreline Hearings Board. The agency is weighing the Puyallup Tribe’s appeal of a city permit issued in November for the project’s shoreline development aspects. It includes a Hylebos waterway fueling dock for non-TOTE vessels that since has been deleted from plans.

In filings, the tribe contends Tacoma issued the permit without doing enough analysis and left too much to be done by federal and other agencies in their future permit considerations. Ringel said the appeal decision is expected in August.

That appointed and elected board’s decision on the permit could force the project to be redesigned or canceled, said Shirley Schultz, Tacoma’s principal planner.

Q. How much new pipeline would the plant require?

A. 4 miles, through Tacoma and Fife, to expand the amount of natural gas that can be piped into the port, and another mile through unincorporated Pierce County to a new gas distribution station.

Q. Is the pipeline safe?

A. Pipeline sizes listed in the plant’s environmental impact statement are “not a particularly large or high-pressure pipeline,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham-based watchdog agency Pipeline Safety Trust. That agency was founded with settlement money from the 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion that killed three boys.

The 4-mile natural gas pipeline through Fife and Tacoma for the LNG plant would be a 16-inch pipe designed to handle 250 pounds per square inch. That, Weimer said, is likely no larger than other gas mains used around the Tacoma area. The federal blast zone reference chart he relies on does not go lower than 500 pounds per square inch, he said.

The 1-mile pipeline segment would connect existing pipes in the area of Golden Given Road East and South 99th Street. It would be designed for 500 pounds per square inch, which is toward the low end of industrial sizes. The potential blast zone for a rupture of that size of pipe would have a 165-foot radius, he said. The risk factors are calculated in terms of flat open land, he said.

“If a person is standing in an open field 165 feet away when that (size) of pipeline fully ruptured,” he said, “that person would likely be in an area that they potentially would die from the initial blast.”

Q. How many agencies have to issue permits?

A. At least 15, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Puyallup Tribe.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally