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What Is Methanol And What Hazards Does It Pose?

The German chemical company BASF uses the port of Ludwigshafen as a transshipment terminal for flammable liquids such as methanol.

On Wednesday, Tacoma residents will get another chance to weigh in on a plan for what could become the world’s biggest methanol plant. A lot of people have raised concerns about potential safety hazards posed by methanol itself and the process of refining it from natural gas.

Methanol is a type of alcohol used in plenty of products, from windshield wiper fluid to plastics to fuel additives for cars. It even occurs naturally in certain things we consume.

“Everybody is exposed to methanol every day in the foods they eat, especially in fruits and vegetables, but at low levels,” said David Eaton, a professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

But he says if you swallow bigger amounts, methanol is dangerous and can cause blindness and kidney damage.

Methanol is biodegradable and non-carcinogenic, two things mentioned on the web site of Northwest Innovation Works, a company backed by the Chinese government that’s proposing the project along with two more methanol plants on the Columbia River.

Highly Flammable

Still, Eaton said methanol is also highly flammable, as is the natural gas used to produce it.

“If I were to have a concern, it would be the concern of a catastrophic accident and a big fire,” Eaton said.

There have been industrial fires from methanol. One in Garland, Texas in 2012 destroyed part of a chemical plant but resulted in no injuries. Two people died in 2006 at a wastewater treatment plant in Florida when a methanol storage tank caught on fire.

Northwest Innovation Works says its first priority is safety and that methanol production is highly regulated. The company says it will use redundant systems to prevent accidents such as spills or fires.

“Our plants will follow local, state, and federal regulations to address the safety of our operations and workers at all production and storage facilities,” the company said on its web site. “Northwest Innovation Works will proactively coordinate with the ports, local fire departments and first responders, and state agencies to ensure the safety of the surrounding community.”

The Tacoma methanol project is still in the early days of environmental review, and the city of Tacoma is accepting public comment on what should be included in the draft environmental impact statement until March 4.

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