The Port of Tacoma didn’t exactly launch a robust public outreach before making a deal with multinational investors to build a methanol plant on the Tideflats. Port commissioners announced plans for the gas-conversion and export facility in spring 2014 and voted unanimously a week later to sign the 30-plus-year lease – on the same day they listened to citizen comment for the first time.
Flash forward nearly two years, and the City of Tacoma is in charge of evaluating the adverse impacts of the controversial $3.4 billion project on the former site of the Kaiser Aluminum smelter. What started as a fast-track lease agreement has decelerated into a slow-track review with multiple checkpoints and plenty of time for Pierce County residents to be heard.
City officials made a good call by pumping the brakes again this week. As they prepare to do long hours of homework and draft an environmental impact statement (EIS), they extended a public comment deadline from Feb. 17 to March 4. They also added a third “scoping” meeting after an extraordinary crowd of 500-plus people jammed the last session.
City planner Ian Munce said some colleagues thought it was overkill last week to reserve a 400-seat meeting room, plus 200-seat overflow space. It turned out to be underkill, and he won’t let it happen again. The additional session, scheduled for Feb. 10, will be held in a ballroom with a capacity of 1,900.
If there’s any issue this year that could compel nearly 2,000 Tacomans to sit in folding chairs for several hours, it’s the methanol plant. (Sorry, presidential caucus organizers. No disrespect intended.)
On one side, hardhat unions and economic development boosters might line up to speak again. They might reiterate that the plant should be built because it will produce good-paying jobs – an estimated 1,000 workers to construct it starting around 2018, and 260 permanent employees by 2021.
On the other side, environmental and health advocates might dominate the crowd again. They might return with their “Just Say No” refrain, contending that Tacoma shouldn’t host the world’s largest methanol plant, shouldn’t feed the world’s plastic addiction and shouldn’t risk a repeat of the local industrial scourges of yesteryear.
Both sides have valid arguments, but deciding whether the plant should or shouldn't be built is not the purpose of an environmental scoping process. The lease was approved more than 20 months ago, and the city doesn’t have authority to reapprove or un-approve it. Neither the City Council nor the voters can do that.
Tacoma’s role is simply to turn in its homework by drafting the most complete EIS possible. Then, all the other agencies responsible for issuing permits will have thorough information on which to base their decisions.
“Just Say No” sounded nice when Nancy Reagan said it, but it won’t work here. A more effective approach for critics is: “We don’t want you to build this facility, but as long as you’re looking into it, please carefully study the impacts its emissions will have on air quality.
“And the impacts the plant’s heavy water and power consumption will have on the environment and ratepayers.”
“And the safety hazards posed by processing and storing several hundred thousand metric tons of flammable liquid.”
And the list goes on.
Over the next several months, people will have many chances to sound off – at hearings on the EIS, after it’s completed; on the myriad individual permits, before they’re issued; and during an appeals process, if it comes to that. Oversight also will be provided by the feds, including the Coast Guard and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The methanol plant could live or die depending on how those steps play out.
For now, however, the best thing citizens can do is ask smart questions that will help city planners finish their homework. The community needs them to ace this assignment.
Two public meetings scheduled
Feb. 10 (new): 6:30 p.m., Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, 1500 Broadway, 5th floor exhibition hall.
Feb. 16: 6:30 p.m., Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Ave. NE.
For both meetings, doors will open at 5 p.m., and speakers will be called forward in the order they sign up.
Scope of work document coming
By Feb. 5, the city plans to have a “scope of work” document posted on the project website. People planning to speak at the two meetings are encouraged to focus as much as possible on this document.