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Tacomans Voice Frustration About Lack Of Information About Methanol Proposal

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

Northwest Innovation Works, the Chinese-backed company seeking to build one of the world’s largest methanol plants in Tacoma, says it wants to address community concerns, but at a panel discussion sponsored by the City Club of Tacoma, many people expressed frustration that they haven’t been able to get answers. 

The plant would bring in natural gas by pipeline to a site on the tideflats of the Port of Tacoma, where the gas would be converted to liquid methanol to be shipped to China to be used in making plastics.

There’s been so much opposition that Northwest Innovation recently paused the environmental review process to answer more questions.

But at the City Club discussion, presenters from environmental groups expressed exasperation at how tough they said it's been to get the kind of detailed information they're seeking on everything from what kind of air emissions the plant would release to whether using this methanol made with natural gas would indeed be a more environmentally friendly way of making plastics. 

"I have spent the last six months asking increasingly pointedly the governor's office, the project backers, any number of other folks how it is we can believe that this is a cleaner way of producing plastics than alternatives, how it is that we believe that if we do this it will displace dirtier forms of plastics," said Eric de Place, policy director of the environmental and energy think tank Sightline Institute. "So far after six months of asking these questions, I've gotten nothing in response."

Phil Eastland, Northwest Innovation's vice president of technology, said the plant would help Tacoma be a leader in trying to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a previous interview, company executives said coal is the predominant feedstock for methanol produced in China and that produces more greenhouse gas emissions. Eastland also spoke of the jobs the plant would generate - 1,000 construction positions and about 260 permanent, "living-wage" jobs. 

But on other business and health topics, such as why Northwest Innovation formed as a limited liability company and whether the air emissions would be carcinogenic, Eastland said he wasn’t the right one to answer.

`Extremely Frustrated'

That prompted Tacoma Public Utilities Board Chairman Bryan Flint, who was sitting in the audience, to react with outrage.

"One thing I’ve learned today is that you are unable to answer basic questions about this project and I’m extremely frustrated," Flint said. "So I would recommend to your executive team and your company, `Go away, get your act together and don’t come back until you’re ready to answer some of these basic questions.'"

Flint said he was commenting as an individual, not on behalf of the utility’s board. 

After the panel, the company issued a statement saying that the state environmental policy act process is designed to answer questions like those posed by Flint and is the "appropriate avenue for determining these answers."

A draft environmental impact statement for the company's proposed methanol plant along the Columbia River at the Port of Kalama is now available for review.

"We understand the frustration of those who want more information now, but it takes time to research and consider all aspects of constructing what will be a $3.4 billion facility," the company said. 

Northwest Innovation said it wants to find "new and innovative ways to reduce the impact of our operations," which requires more time and due diligence. But the company also said it wants to continue to discuss the environmental and economic benefits of the project to the region. 

city_club_methanol_panel.mp3
Click here to listen to the entire City Club of Tacoma presentation on the proposed methanol plant

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.
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