The hotly debated environmental review of a planned $3.4 billion methanol plant slated for Tacoma’s tideflats has been put on hold. The developer asked the City of Tacoma to formally pause the environmental review process last week.
“NWIW’s goal is to build a local industry that contributes to the economy and protects the environment by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. NWIW’s use of new clean technology provides an exciting opportunity for Washington and Oregon to become world leaders in addressing climate change through innovation by producing methanol and the products we use every day in a more environmentally responsible way,” said company president Murray V. Godley in a statement released last week. “The Pacific Northwest’s dedication to environmental protection is one of the reasons NWIW chose this region for its facilities. Given these objectives, we have been surprised by the tone and substance of the vocal opposition that has emerged in Tacoma. To force a facility on a community that does not welcome it would not be consistent with our goals. Therefore, we have decided to pause the State Environmental Policy Act environmental review process in Tacoma.”
News of the “pause” of what could be several months comes after mounting opposition to the Northwest Innovation Works-backed plant filled two public hearings with more than 1,000 people each time and spilled over into City Council and Port of Tacoma Commission meetings. A petition drive gathering signatures to call for a public vote on developments that would use more than a million gallons of water was also underway in an effort to stop the project. State lawmakers had floated bills to kill the plan and local governments had also voiced their concerns. Federal Way held an emergency council meeting to unanimously oppose the plant, and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians also formally spoke out against the plant. The City of University Place was the latest to consider weighing in on the issue, after Mayor Javier H. Figueroa questioned the plant’s regional impacts last week.
The surprise call for a pause came after Port of Tacoma Commissioners held a five-hour study session on the proposal, a meeting that drew more than 100 people to hear Godley outline the project and field questions.
"We thought we had done a good job of outreach,” he said at the presentation. “We obviously have not."
“I have always been committed to informed decision making,” Commissioner Don Meyer said. “We are not informed right now. We do not have the facts. We have to slow this process down and get more facts.”
The pause was announced two days later. While NWIW develops those facts and conducts outreach to address community concerns, efforts to gather opposition to the plan will continue, organizers say.
The City of Tacoma is the official lead agency on the now-paused environmental review. An environmental review addresses potential impacts on everything from transportation, fire, health and safety that will then be used by an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies during their permitting processes. Those permits include a City of Tacoma Shoreline Substantial Development Permit, Department of Ecology Water Quality Certification, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Hydraulic Project Approval, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permits and a Notice of Construction air contaminant permit from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The federal permits involve a review of waterway operations by the U.S. Coast Guard as well. The city was just ending its scoping process to determine what specifically a study should address. A 17-page draft roster of the topics was released earlier this month. Now with the formal pause, the city has cancelled the third public comment meeting that was slated for earlier this week and is now developing a new timeline for when, or if, NWIW kickstarts the process again.
“During the period of suspension, city staff responsible for the environmental review will put their activity on hold,” the city announced. “To the extent that staff continues to receive comments, they will be placed in the file.”
If NWIW restarts the process, city staff could either trigger a new 45-day scoping period or call for a 30-day scoping review that carries over previous comments as applicable. But regardless of the route, the City Council will remain silent on the issue.
“The City Council, as the city’s legislative body and in accordance with the City Code and Charter, does not participate in the environmental review process regardless of timing,” the city stated. “In order to maintain regulatory neutrality, the City Council does not comment on pending environmental review.”
The pause will now allow the company to develop more details about the proposed plant and talk with members of the community about their concerns, the environmental and safety procedures that would be in place as well as explore further innovations to increase efficiencies and lower impacts.
“We remain committed to Tacoma, and will restart the process after assessing the results of our engagement with the community,” said Godley.
Northwest Innovation Works is proposing the construction of what would be the world’s largest methanol plant on land it leases from the Port of Tacoma. The plant would convert up to 20,000 metric tons of liquefied natural gas piped into the facility each day into methanol, a wood alcohol, that would then be shipped to China and made into olefins, which is a key component of plastics and electrical components. The project would bring 1,000 construction jobs while the facility is being built and about 260 jobs when it is operational. The facility could be in full operation by 2021. The Tacoma plant would be one of three plants being proposed in the Pacific Northwest. The other two are being planned for the Port of Kalama and the Port of St. Helens.
NWIW is a joint venture partly backed by the Chinese government and British Petroleum. The size of the planned plant doubled in size – from two lines to four – after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the city last year. If all are built, the three facilities would make 14.4 million metric tons of methanol each year, more than double the combined 6.5 million tons currently produced at all of the other facilities around the nation.
Much of the opposition against the proposal centers on environmental concerns regarding the plants demands for water and power. The facility would use 10.4 million gallons of water each day, a 28 percent reduction of water use from first estimates of 14.4 million gallons a day. The drop would come from the reuse of water to cool the plant during the conversion process. The plant would also use up to 450 megawatts of power, which is about the electrical use of 320,000 homes. It would almost double the power managed by Tacoma Public Utilities and require the public utility to buy power on the open market for resale to the facility, which worries some people about higher power bills.
The Tacoma plant would be located in the industrially zoned tideflats, which is already home to other petrochemical facilities, a planned liquefied natural gas plant, railroad tracks, shipping terminals and residential neighborhoods in Browns Point and Fife. The tideflats is also in the lahar zone and on an earthquake fault line as well.