Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s a target for fossil-fuel development. We’ve got to act now to stop it.

An oil train moves through Tacoma three years ago. More could be coming without new land-use regulations, according to columnist Matt Driscoll.
An oil train moves through Tacoma three years ago. More could be coming without new land-use regulations, according to columnist Matt Driscoll. Staff file, 2014

We’re No. 2, Tacoma!

But that’s not a good thing.

Last month, the Sightline Institute — a nonprofit progressive think tank that largely concerns itself with environmental health and social justice — released a report ranking Pacific Northwest communities most threatened by coal, oil and natural-gas development.

It looked at every community in Washington and Oregon that has been targeted by such developments since 2010 and then analyzed the risk and likelihood of future proposals.

The City of Destiny came in second on the unsavory list, behind only the lower Columbia River.

Of Tacoma, the report concluded: “This heavily industrialized Puget Sound city is wrestling with several active fossil fuel proposals and is almost certain to be the site of future plans.”

That’s why we need to do something now. And precisely why the current effort to develop interim regulations on heavy industrial uses in the Tacoma Tideflats is so pressing and necessary.

A thoughtful pause, sooner rather than later, would serve us well.

Because for a city like Tacoma, land-use regulations — even temporary ones — are the most effective way to exert control.

As the Sightline report notes: “Northwest communities are not powerless ... Each of them has at its disposal a sort of secret weapon: fortifying local land use laws to protect themselves from dirty energy expansion projects.”

This heavily industrialized Puget Sound city is wrestling with several active fossil fuel proposals and is almost certain to be the site of future plans.

Taken from the Sightline Institute’s “Northwest Targets: Communities Threatened by Coal, Oil, and Gas” report

In May, the City Council agreed to begin developing a subarea plan for the Tacoma Tideflats. When complete, it would provide a detailed road map for what we want the Tideflats to look like, including valuable input from the Port of Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

If done correctly, it should accurately reflect Tacoma’s vision for itself, all voices considered — including those of environmentalists and business leaders, two groups that too often are pitted against one another, sometimes needlessly.

But here’s the problem: Creating that subarea plan is going to take years and in the ballpark of $1 million to craft. We’ll all be at least a little closer to death by the time it’s done.

So what happens in meantime?

That uncertainty is what has people on edge, and why City Councilman Ryan Mello put forward a compromise amendment directing the city’s planning commission to look at creating interim land-use rules for the Tideflats. Melo specifically wants to target “heavy uses,” including potential fossil-fuel development.

Much like the sub-area plan itself, we all stand to win if the interim regulations are crafted thoughtfully. (Well, except for future fossil-fuel development, of course.)

According to Todd Iverson, a member of the Longshore & Warehouse Union ILWU Local 23, “smartly written” interim regulations would benefit “Longshore jobs, warehouse jobs, and ... the whole Pierce County economy.”

“We lose a lot of days of work here because the trains full of corn cargo don’t get here on time, because the oil trains have priority on the railways,” Iverson said.

He told me this Friday morning, standing on the deck of a wheat ship.

Iverson believes a middle ground can be reached in writing the interim-regulations — one that ensures the continued success of existing industries in the port, while limiting new fossil-fuel facilities that stand to do us harm.

“Those facilities do not create enough jobs to offset the jobs that we potentially could lose between our containers and our grain facilities not reaching their capacity,” Iverson said.

Here’s what’s clear: and the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the production of fossil fuels means that Sightline’s prediction is likely dead on. There almost certainly would be future fossil fuel-development proposals.

“Over the last decade, there’s been this enormous pressure to export various types of fossil fuels from this region,” said Eric de Place, author of the Sightline report. “Frankly, I think we have a responsibility to the world to say no to this stuff, and prevent it from getting shipped and burned. There isn’t really a way to move this stuff to market unless it goes through the Northwest.”

Sure, we have a responsibility to the rest of world. But, foremost, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our environment, our values and our local economy.

Planning commission member Dorian Waller and chairman Chris Beale told me the commission has begun discussing the idea of interim regulations, and there’s a cautious belief that they’re needed.

That’s the first hurdle.

Waller said the commission is in “fact-finding mode.” Both suggested that the City Council would likely have recommendations in hand by early fall, and that there would be ample opportunity for community feedback before then.

I think it’s going to be more difficult than we think, and more difficult than we want to believe.

Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello, on the potential of passing interim rules for land use in the Tideflats

Mello, citing expected pressure from businesses and the powerful fossil-fuel industry, said he doesn’t think getting even interim regulations would be easy.

“I think it’s going to be more difficult than we think, and more difficult than we want to believe,” he said.

I’m sure he’s right.

But here’s one thing to remember: The list of communities protecting themselves from the expansion of fossil-fuel development is growing. Places like Hoquiam, Aberdeen, Vancouver, Whatcom County, Spokane and Portland have all taken steps to do so.

And every moment Tacoma wastes in doing the same?

It becomes a more attractive target.

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