Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about the Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant.
Last week, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency cleared the way for the Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant to proceed with its remaining construction.
The facility has been the subject of a bitter, ongoing dispute between the Puyallup Tribe, climate activists, the city and state agencies. Racing towards completion in 2021, many contend that the groundwork to build the facility should never have begun in the first place.
Now that Puget Sound Energy has been issued the final permit needed to complete its LNG facility, it will allow the energy company to bring natural gas via underground pipelines to Tacoma where it will be frozen at -260 degrees Fahrenheit and then stored. The facility can produce no more than 250,000 gallons of LNG per day; up to eight million gallons of LNG can be held in the massive tank.
At a cost of $310 million, PSE says the plant will service natural gas customers at peak times during the coldest days of the year and provide a fuel alternative for cargo ships owned by Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), the first and largest customer in line for Tacoma LNG.
According to PSE, TOTE’s use of LNG will help keep air healthy and ensure their compliance with stricter emission standards as well as reduce the risk of fuel spills both in Commencement Bay and abroad.
PSE says the facility will also bring hundreds of jobs and plenty of tax revenue to the region. But opponents of the project are not convinced by the supposed incentives, claiming the costs for building it will fall back onto consumers and that the process to get to this point was faulted. For many, the trouble began with the city of Tacoma, which acted as the lead agency to assess the environmental impacts of the LNG facility in the area — critics said they could not have done so impartially. Others condemn the lack of consultation with the Puyallup Tribe to build what they call shortsighted infrastructure overflowing with risk that is not compatible with the future of energy production.
The project has the attention of many living on Vashon, who point to the potential dangers that natural gas poses to both the environment — “fracked” (short for hydraulic fracturing) from wells in British Columbia — and to communities surrounding such facilities. Last summer, members of the group Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma obtained information through a public disclosure request from the Tacoma Fire Department showing that authorities ran models for a 12-mile-wide emergency response zone in the event of a disaster at the facility. That area encompassed Tacoma, Lakewood, Gig Harbor and more than half of Vashon Island. But the fire department has dismissed the models as inaccurate and misinterpreted.
Some of those who continue to resist the facility’s progress say they won’t need to wait for the day when it upends their lives.
Dakota Case, an activist and Puyallup tribal member, lives on the doorstep of the Port of Tacoma in Fife, where his family has settled for generations, in the house that his grandfather left him after his death. He said the poor air quality and heavy particulates he can see floating outside of his home have made him congested and sick. Now, he said, with the LNG facility’s first days of operation closer than ever, things are sure to get worse.
“The LNG facility is a threat to our entire way of life,” said Case, adding that he believes the tide flats where PSE is building are considered a “sacrifice zone,” too polluted to restore, though the Port has stated that it is working on a plan with the Washington Department of Ecology to clean the area of prior contamination.
Case cited reports that salmon and chum runs have closed up across Washington. One recent example is the Nisqually River, where the Nisqually Tribe has moved to close its chum salmon fishery weeks before the season was supposed to end because winter chum returns were dismal this year. Case expects the trend to continue unless there is significant and meaningful action to stop it, but he isn’t seeing signs of that happening.
“All these streams are filled up with salmon and we have a sacred promise. We have to honor and protect them; it goes all the way back to oral tradition,” he said.
The fracked gas distributed by the LNG facility, said Case, will contribute to global climate change, disrupting the activities of salmon by accelerating warming in their native bodies of water. He believes the LNG facility is one more blight on the natural world, making the task of preserving resources for future generations harder by the day.
In spite of the tribe’s concerns, according to Case, there was only minimal effort on the part of PSE to meet with them.
“That’s an act of war, killing off our food source, making sure our voices don’t matter,” he said.
The Port of Tacoma asserts that it has a right to lease the land where the LNG facility is located, on the Blair-Hylebos Peninsula, because the Puyallup Tribe abandoned its claim to some 18,000 acres of land on Commencement Bay as part of a $162 million settlement in 1988.
The agreement was ratified in a bill in Congress in 1989. Case, however, disagrees, saying that the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 has broader authority, as he said it guarantees fishing rights in perpetuity on the land and shoreline where the plant is being constructed. The Puyallup Tribe has called on the Army Corps of Engineers to uphold and protect the tribe’s treaty rights. But Case said the Port has not involved them and that protection from the federal government is unlikely.
Tacoma residents and grassroots groups such as the climate activism organization 350 Seattle, he noted, are not quitting the fight. Locally, islanders raised $5,700 last summer to support a lawsuit by The Sierra Club and Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma against the Department of Ecology and the Tacoma City Council over their inaction on the LNG facility. Those who are interested in becoming involved in other island efforts to oppose the project may contact Suzanne Greenberg, who heads the NO-LNG team of the Vashon Climate Action Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, opponents could next try to appeal the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s approval of the facility’s construction with the Pollution Control Hearings Board.
Craig Kenworthy, executive director of the clean air agency, wrote in a statement about the permit decision that the project meets the standards set by applicable laws and regulations, noting that the permit requires PSE to demonstrate compliance with emission limits at the facility. He added that the agency is “not authorized to pass judgment” on issues outside of the scope of the analyses and permitting processes, including water quality concerns and safety off-site.
PSE has fielded questions from the public over the safety of the facility in light of incidents that have occurred with LNG. One prominent fear is that the 8 million gallon nickel steel storage tank is vulnerable to threats, from seismic activity to tsunamis to terror attacks, and that if it were to rupture it would cause a major disaster.
PSE has stated that the storage tank is being constructed in accordance with all necessary requirements and more, stating that it is designed to withstand an earthquake that is expected to happen every 2,450 years without resulting in LNG loss. Moreover, the entire facility is secured with over 2,000 three-foot diameter concrete columns extending to a depth of 80 to 100 feet to maximize stability, according to PSE.
Joe Meinecke, the spokesperson for the Tacoma Fire Department, said the materials obtained by Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma showing a 12-mile emergency response zone emanating from the LNG facility were intended to roughly gauge how fast and how far gas could travel in a scenario where the tank ruptured.
“We did not consider those to be authoritative. We have claimed that on every occasion that we can,” he said, adding that they were not released prior to the public disclosure request because doing so could inhibit future training and mislead the public.
“If we thought those were authoritative or accurate or valid, we certainly would say or do something,” he said.
Meinecke also referred to a Tacoma City Council internal memo further emphasizing that the city complies with the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), as several critics alleged they had not for failing to publish those and other emergency response information until prompted.
Steve Storms, a retired chemical engineer and vice president of Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma, said he can accept that a 12-mile radius is likely the fire department’s worst-case scenario.
“But that’s the model you probably want to run,” he said, adding that he does not believe a rupture that emits natural gas could only be contained to the LNG site as PSE maintains.
Should the LNG facility be compromised somehow in its lifetime, the repercussions will be astronomical, according to Storms.
“There’s a reason school buses have to stop at railroad tracks. Not because the drivers are worse than car drivers, but because the consequences are so much higher,” he said, noting his belief that building the facility on the Tacoma tidelands makes it susceptible to earthquakes and sea-level rise.
Storms, who noted that he was a climate change denier earlier in his professional life, said that he speaks with as many people as he can about his concerns over the LNG facility, including students. For him, those conversations inspire.
“Maybe all of the protests around the world, with all the fires all over the place and the European Union [voting] to declare an environmental emergency, and Greta Thunberg making rounds and students are getting upset everywhere; maybe they’re going to listen to us. I don’t know, but that’s my hope,” he said.