Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: The time for a methanol debate in Tacoma is now

The News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll.
The News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll. Staff photographer

Let’s hope it’s coming, Tacoma.

No, not necessarily the proposed $3.4 billion methanol plant in the Port of Tacoma — the one Northwest Innovation Works, the company hoping to build it, says will bring some 1,000 jobs during peak construction, create an estimated 260 permanent ones once built, and guzzle 7,200 gallons of water per minute.

What we need at this point is the robust communitywide debate that should precede any such project. Mayor Marilyn Strickland has promised “a long and thorough process.”

“I think the methanol plant is something that requires thoughtful and careful scrutiny,” the mayor told The News Tribune this year.

I think the methanol plant is something that requires thoughtful and careful scrutiny.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland

Up until now, that thoughtful and careful scrutiny — if we can call it that — has largely lived online, in select spaces. A journey through my social media feeds over the last month or so has almost always included at least one post from a concerned Tacoman, speaking to a select choir, railing against the proposed state-of-the-art facility.

If we’re lucky, that forum is about to change — from the bubble of online to the mess of real life.

Jan. 21 marks the first of two public meetings intended to gather feedback on the proposed plant, which is being backed by the Chinese government and BP, and according to Citizens for a Healthy Bay would be the largest methanol manufacturing facility in the world. The plant would convert natural gas into methanol, which would be shipped to China and converted to olefin, a plasticlike substance that will then be sold back to the world in the form of cellphones and just about every other gadget imaginable.

A second meeting is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 16 somewhere in Northeast Tacoma. Stay tuned.

(Written comments will also be accepted through Feb. 17.)

You thought public meetings on the future of the Click network were packed to the gills? These meetings should have twice as many people.

You thought billboards got people in Tacoma riled up? The potential ramifications of this plant makes Clear Channel’s assault on our senses look like small beans.

But just because a decision deserves a lengthy, informed debate doesn’t mean it always gets one. Sometimes, when there’s enough money and seeming momentum behind a project, these things get overlooked.

It’s up to us to make sure the conversation happens, and to get the answers we deserve.

Other cities, when faced with such a project, have pushed back.

Let’s not be pushovers.

Tacoma is becoming known as an arts center and a great place to live. Let’s keep going that way and not perpetuate the image of smokestacks and pollution.

Tacoma artist and author Tom Llewellyn

We know the potential plant can bring us living-wage jobs, though whether the plant is the smartest path to creating these needed jobs isn’t certain.

We know helping China reduce its dependency on coal is a laudable and necessary goal, though at exactly what cost that might come at for our community isn’t entirely clear.

We know natural gas sometimes explodes, with dire consequences.

We know there are risks, and we know there are potential rewards.

Over the last few days, several locals shared with me their concerns about the would-be methanol plant. They range from the predictable (and valid) safety and environmental concerns, to more complex questions about our history what kind of city we want to be in the future.

“Tacoma is negatively associated with industrial poison. Negative symbols for Tacoma include the Tacoma Aroma due to pulp mill particulates, the old Asarco smokestack that spewed arsenic into the air, and the Superfund site. We’ve worked so hard to change that perception,” local artist and author Tom Llewellyn emailed me. “Tacoma is becoming known as an arts center and a great place to live. Let’s keep going that way and not perpetuate the image of smokestacks and pollution.”

State Sen. Jeannie Darneille is skeptical of the plant. The Tacoma Democrat also is critical of things like how much water the plant will use and the wisdom of turning the old Kaiser Aluminum smelter property into another potential hub for pollution. But most of all, she says, she’s worried about the process.

I just don’t think there are enough eyes on this process right now.

Tacoma state Sen. Jeannie Darneille

Or, so far, the lack thereof.

“At this point, I’m reluctant to say I’m opposed to the facility. I still need to gather more information. But I just don’t think there are enough eyes on this process right now,” Darneille tells me. “I’m looking forward to more debate, and getting more people at the debate table and seeing where it goes.”

“I’m very, very concerned,” she continues. “I don’t think we’ve had the debate yet about what this is worth.”

The time for that conversation is now.

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