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Executives, Politicians Failed To Anticipate Tacomans’ Deep Opposition To Methanol Plant

Ashley Gross
Nanette Reetz and Sue Clemens spent hours on a recent Saturday handing out leaflets against the methanol plant.

In Tacoma, a Chinese-backed company has been seeking to build one of the world’s largest plants to convert natural gas to methanol, which would then be shipped to China to be used in making plastics.

After an intense public outcry, the company recently said it will pause the environmental review process, saying it has been “surprised by the tone and substance of the vocal opposition that has emerged in Tacoma.”

Some political leaders, as well, appear to have not anticipated the depth of community members’ opposition.

Northwest Innovation Works, the company that wants to build the methanol plant, apparently didn’t foresee people like Nanette Reetz volunteering her time to come to a natural foods store on a Saturday to hand out leaflets against the plant.

“Just the public in general in Tacoma are just saying no to this and putting our foot down and getting loud about it,” Reetz said.

Sue Clemens stood next to Reetz wearing a “No Methanol Refinery” button. She’s a grandmother who said she’s never been an activist, but she’s so strongly opposed to the methanol plant that she teared up talking about it.


“This is important to me,” said Clemens, who has spent most of the past 50 years living in Tacoma. “I want to do what I can to improve the world.”

She said one thing that really bothers her is that she feels that politicians made major decisions about the plant without involving the public.

“You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep,” she said. “It’s about time that people be made aware about everything that’s going on in order for us to make an informed decision.”

She was referring to the 30-year lease the Port of Tacoma Commission signed in 2014 with Northwest Innovation. The port commission gave two days’ notice to the public before signing it.

Many people have just recently found out about the methanol plant idea and said they feel like they’ve been shut out of the process. They also have environmental concerns about using natural gas to make methanol, a highly flammable liquid.

Two public hearings held by the city of Tacoma as part of the initial environmental review process drew an estimated 1,000 people each.

Environmental Concerns

“The refinery would be a huge guzzler of our most valuable natural resource – fresh water,” said John Carlton.

“If we have no clean water to drink, if we have no air that we can breathe, what are a few dollars and 200 jobs to anyone?” said Karen Cross.

“I worry about carcinogens like benzene, formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide released into the air,” said Bill Kupinse. “I worry about the fact that seismologists report that the Pacific Northwest is overdue for an earthquake of 8.0 or greater on the Richter scale.”

Some union members spoke up in favor of the jobs the plant would create. That’s what Governor Jay Inslee touted at a Seattle economic conference a year ago, when he described his efforts to attract foreign direct investment from China and persuade Northwest Innovation to build the Tacoma plant and another one in Kalama near the Columbia River.

“These projects will generate about 250 jobs and over $3 billion with a b in direct investment in the state of Washington,” Inslee said. “For comparison purposes, in 2013, the total Chinese FDI in the entire United States was under $3 billion, so I think the meetings with this group was a pretty good idea.”

In recent weeks, Inslee has backed away a bit, citing environmental concerns.

“We’ll have to make sure there’s not deleterious impacts on salmon runs and the needs of other water users,” he told a group of reporters. “We’re going to need to assure people that Puget Sound’s not polluted because of any runoff from this plant.”

But Inslee and his deputies have said that methanol made with natural gas has a much lower carbon footprint than methanol made with coal, which is mostly what’s used in China today.

Clean Energy?

That was a selling point to the Port of Tacoma, said Port Commission President Connie Bacon.

“It was presented to us as an opportunity to be a leader in clean energy,” Bacon said.

She said she’s convinced the methanol plant poses few risks to health or the environment, but Bacon said she regrets that people felt left in the dark about the proposal.

“I just want to first say we’re sorry that people didn’t have the information they needed to feel more comfortable with this,” she said.

Ultimately, Bacon said it was up to the company to address people’s concerns from the outset.

So is the methanol project “clean energy” or a potential environmental disaster? In an interview a couple weeks ago, Northwest Innovation executives said the project’s been misunderstood.

“A lot of information, people get fear, is actually completely being misinformed,” said Northwest Innovation Chief Executive Simon Zhang.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Northwest Innovation Works' office at the Port of Kalama

Northwest Innovation’s largest investor is an arm of the Chinese government. The company is just over two years old and has never built a methanol plant.

Company's Perspective

Zhang said the company plans to partner with an experienced engineering company to build the facility. He said producing methanol from low-priced natural gas in the Pacific Northwest and exporting it to China makes sense for both regions.

“Taking the gas into methanol is clean manufacturing and then to create a lot of investment at local economic benefit to Pacific Northwest and then ship that clean and cost-competitive product to Asia to replace much more environmentally dirty methanol,” Zhang said.

Still, making methanol from natural gas will release greenhouse gases and some air pollution in Tacoma. Northwest Innovation has said it would use an ultra-low emission technology.

When it paused the environmental review, the company said it will spend the next few months sharing more details about the proposal with people in Tacoma.

That’s long overdue, said Tacoma Deputy Mayor Ryan Mello, who described the company’s plans so far as “nebulous.”

“I’ve participated in several different community meetings where they just say, `We don’t know,’ to every question,’” Mello said. “Well, I don’t think you can take this kind of a project through the early permitting process when you have so many question marks.”

`A Mount Rainier Of Plastic'

Northwest Innovation may never be able to persuade people like R.R. Anderson that the methanol plant is a good idea. Anderson is a cartoonist and proprietor of Tinkertopia, what he calls a “creative reuse center” in downtown Tacoma.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
R.R. Anderson, cartoonist and proprietor of Tinkertopia, says there's already too much plastic in the world, and he doesn't think Tacoma should produce methanol used to make more plastic.

It’s a place where people can find leftover stuff to make art or build a robot. The shop is packed with buckets of everything from Mardi Gras beads to old baseball cards, discarded plastic caps from hospitals to scraps of cardboard.

In his business, Anderson sees lots of thrown-away plastic.

“Picture a Mount Rainier of plastic,” he said. “That’s free plastic that nobody wants. And they’re wanting to make more plastic.”

Anderson’s been busy drawing cartoons about the methanol plant. In one, he points out the irony of a city that’s contemplating banning plastic bags but at the same time could become a major producer of methanol used to make plastic.

Anderson said he understands the argument that the plant could help reduce China’s use of coal.

“Yeah, it’s good in a global sense,” he said. “But is it the right fit for here in Tacoma?”

His answer is no – not when the city’s still got dirt contaminated with arsenic and lead from the long-gone Asarco copper smelter.

That’s the challenge Northwest Innovation is up against as it tries to make the case for a methanol plant in Tacoma. 

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.