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Judge: Safety reviews of Tideflats LNG project must be disclosed

A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that city of Tacoma officials must release documents about fire prevention and other safety aspects of Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquid natural gas plant on the Tideflats.

He delayed the disclosure a week to allow the utility to appeal.

PSE sued the city Thursday to keep the documents from being turned over to The News Tribune, contending the information could aid terrorism if disclosed.

The lawsuit also named as defendants The News Tribune and the reporter who filed a public records request for city records about the project.

In a hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Frank E. Cuthbertson denied PSE’s request for an injunction to withhold the records at least until the court of appeals rules on a similar public records case.

“This matter needs to be resolved sooner rather than later,” Cuthbertson said. “If the public needs to know and needs this information, it needs to get out there.”

Cuthbertson said he wanted to be consistent with his separate May ruling over liquid natural gas project records.

In that case, he denied a PSE request that the city withhold specific pieces of a document — appendix J of the siting report for the plant, plus a related DVD — from records turned over to RedLine Tacoma activist John Carlton. He delayed the disclosure, pending appeal.

Friday’s ruling, which covers the full siting report and a separate fire protection study, says the records should become public in one week unless the appeals court orders them withheld longer.

Karen Peterson, executive editor of The News Tribune, said the records should be made public.

“This safety information is critical to the community conversation about the LNG plant,” she said. “PSE says the plant is safe and that it has the modeling to prove it. A judge and the city say the public has a right to see those reports. We absolutely agree with them. It’s time for PSE to show its math.”

The LNG project is a 30-acre, $275 million plant that will pipe in natural gas, chill it until it becomes a denser liquid and store it in an 8 million-gallon tank to be constructed on the peninsula between the Blair and Hylebos waterways.

According to PSE’s filings, the 250,000 gallons of LNG the plant will produce daily is to be sold to outside agencies and used to boost the utility’s supplies on a half-dozen peak need days per year.

So far, the only outside company that has signed on to use the liquid natural gas is Totem Ocean Trailer Express, which plans to convert two regular Tacoma-to-Alaska ships to run on LNG instead of marine bunker fuel, a heavy pollutant.

According to PSE’s construction time line, the plant is to begin operations in 2019.

Citizens’ groups have said the project could create a public danger in case of leakage or explosion. PSE has said any problems would be contained within its site, but has fought release of the complex studies that contain disaster-scenario modeling.

In court Friday, Michele Earl-Hubbard, attorney for The News Tribune, told Cuthbertson that a drawn-out fight over records would harm the public’s ability to have meaningful input before the plant obtains all the permits it needs to begin operating.

Delaying the release of records while an appeals process fully plays out could mean withholding information until the case spends a decade wending its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.

“This plant will actually be built before we even get a chance to test the theories that they are telling us,” Earl-Hubbard said.

Rita Latsinova, PSE’s attorney, said the typical appeal of a Superior Court ruling takes from 12 to 18 months, on average.

She also said PSE has a separate court issue: the Puyallup Tribe has filed a Thurston County Superior Court case seeking to reverse the Shorelines Hearings Board’s July decision to uphold a key permit for the LNG plant.

After the hearing, Latsinova said the utility would take Friday’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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