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Tacoma Residents Will Get A Chance To Weigh In On Plans For Giant Methanol Plant

Port of Tacoma
An aerial view of the site at the Port of Tacoma where the methanol plant would be built

A Chinese-backed group wants to build what they say would be the world’s biggest methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma, raising lots of concerns among nearby residents, who will have a chance to weigh in on the project at a scoping meeting this Thursday. 

Northwest Innovation Works is the company that’s planning to build the Tacoma methanol plant, as well as two more plants along the Columbia River: one at the Port of Kalama and one in Oregon at the Port of St. Helens. The company is a joint venture partly backed by the Chinese government.

What they want to do is take natural gas and convert it to methanol. The plan is to produce as much as 20,000 metric tons (about 6.6 million gallons) each day. 

"The methanol is then placed on a ship and exported to Asia, where it will be used to produce olefins," said Charla Skaggs, a spokeswoman for Northwest Innovation Works. "Olefins are a compound in most of the items we use every day."

Olefins are used in plastics and Skaggs said they're found in everything from clothing to cell phones to eyeglasses.

The methanol plant would be built at the site of the former Kaiser aluminum smelter at the Port of Tacoma. Skaggs says it would create about 1,000 construction positions while it’s being built and as many as 260 permanent jobs.

But converting natural gas to methanol uses a lot of water. This plant would need more than 10 million gallons of water a day.

Water Consumption

That water consumption is a big concern to artist and environmental activist Claudia Riedener. She's part of a group called Redline Tacoma Coalition which is working to prevent the methanol plant from opening.

"The very top concern for me is the incredible use of fresh drinking water," Riedener said. "The Northwest just went through a big drought last year and Tacoma Public Utilities did do a call to all residents and businesses to conserve fresh water by 10 percent, so we all tried really diligently not to water our lawns." 

Skaggs said Northwest Innovation Works is exploring the possible use of gray water or waste water instead of drinking water. 

Another issue people have raised is the possibility of a large fire or an explosion. State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, a Democrat whose district includes the Port of Tacoma, said she's concerned about safety risks for people in Northeast Tacoma and Fife, as well as along Interstate 5. 

"Is this the right place?" Darneille said. "Is Tacoma, Washington, the right place for this kind of plant because of its urban nature?"

Skaggs said her company takes safety very seriously and is partnering with a British company called Johnson Matthey which has a lot of experience building methanol plants. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.