Port needs open process, not blanket prohibition

From the editorial board

Port of Tacoma July, 12, 2012.
Port of Tacoma July, 12, 2012. David Montesino/Staff photographer

It sounds like a setup for a joke: A mayor, two port commissioners and two city councilmen walk into a meeting with an agenda of how best to involve concerned citizens in future development at the Port of Tacoma.

But City Councilman Ryan Mello skipped straight to the punchline at the Aug. 15 meeting. He proclaimed that public process isn’t necessary when it comes to fossil fuel projects at the port, believing those “dirty” ideas should be scrapped immediately.

It was off-putting that Mello’s unilateral cry came directly after a meeting where the No. 1 priority was giving people more public process, not less.

The meeting, intended to collect input from a few representatives, was a good call, and a refreshing turnabout. In June, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said elected port and city officials would begin gathering as a working group behind closed doors, saying privacy would allow for more “frank discussions” about the future of the port.

The port wisely decided that open governance trumps a not-in-front-of-the-children philosophy.

The original desire to draw the drapes probably stemmed from some residual recoil. Last spring, both bodies felt the full blast of not-in-our-backyard activism over plans for a Chinese-backed methanol plant.

Neither the port nor the city, however, wants repeat accusations of blindsiding an unsuspecting public. Last week’s meeting was an attempt to patch up old injuries and make way for new policy.

Port Commissioner Connie Bacon proposed a future precedent for considering projects that revolve around natural resources or fossil fuels: The port would host at least three public meetings, and before any project advances, the public would be privy to timelines, financial impacts, and details about safety and facility operations.

But this solution wasn’t good enough for Mello. He called Bacon’s proposals “lipstick on a pig.”

Mello’s cause isn’t foreign to other Northwest communities. Vancouver, Hoquiam and Whatcom County are all seeing disputes over the scale or appropriateness of fossil fuel storage, shipping or refining. Elsewhere, 250 environmental and community groups and tribes are petitioning the federal government to stop leasing federal lands for oil extraction.

The Port of Tacoma is sensitive to these pressures. It did not spend $175 million to remediate the Tideflats over the last three decades only to let it be defiled again. Even if wanted to, environmental laws and stricter permit requirements of the Superfund era would not let it.

To bring further change, what’s needed are smart policies, due diligence, and yes, a vocal citizenry — not a call for blanket prohibition at a poorly attended Monday morning meeting.

Ours is a fossil-fuel dependent economy; just look at Interstate 5 any time of the day or night. No argument here that we must reduce our coal and oil footprint, but sticking our fists in the air and demanding these energy sources be outlawed is not the way to turn a big ship.

Tacoma’s deep water port is the city’s economic center of gravity. The community deserves — and open governance requires — robust discussions about the risks and benefits, environmental, social, and economic impacts, of any sweeping policy change.

In a city that needs high-paying blue-collar jobs, it’s also presumptuous to conclude that modern science and diligent oversight can’t safely deliver good jobs and a cleaner environment.

Mello says he speaks for a community that wants to align the port’s future with public safety, as well as protect the natural environment and meet climate goals. To him, that means no oil or coal, and no return to aluminum smelting. “I don’t need 30 meetings to tell me that,” he said. “I already know that.”

But standing up with the imperious belief that you are speaking for an entire region is as detrimental to democracy as shutting the doors on political process.

Port commissioners said they agreed with Mello’s general principles, and Commisioner Dick Marzano said the port has resisted coal and oil overtures. But as Commissioner Bacon said: “We have to be real about what we define as possibilities. They’re different than hopes.”

We couldn’t say it any better.