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Tacoma Mayoral Hopefuls Answer To A Growing Environmental Movement

Will James
Candidates for Tacoma mayor debate on July 14, 2017. From left: Evelyn Lopez, Victoria Woodards, and Jim Merritt

Environmental activists are the most vocal group in Tacoma politics today.

That's a new development in a city known as a hub of heavy industry. But growing concerns about fossil fuels and pollution are already shaping the race for the next mayor.

Protests by Tacoma environmentalists helped kill plans for a methanol refinery in the city last year. Activists have since set their sights on a planned liquefied natural gas plant.

Their muscle was on display at a debate Friday evening among three candidates hoping to replace term-limited Mayor Marilyn Strickland. 

Puget Sound Energy's plan to build the liquefied natural gas facility at the Port of Tacoma was a central issue at the forum, which drew more than 60 people.

Evelyn Lopez, former head of the state Public Disclosure Commission, was the most outspoken against the project of the candidates.

"What I really don't want is to continue the buildup of fossil fuels in the port," she said. "I want to see us move toward the future."

Victoria Woodards, a mayoral candidate and former city council member, once praised the project as a source of jobs. But at the forum, she stressed that she doesn't support any new fossil fuel exports at the Port of Tacoma.

Puget Sound Energy has said the plant will not export any liquefied natural gas but instead supply the fuel to local utility customers and ships run by the TOTE Maritime company. 

Woodards also said the city's effort to craft a long-term plan for the Port of Tacoma should include input from residents, businesses and Native American tribes.

Mayoral candidate and Tacoma architect Jim Merritt said liquefied natural gas, which is cleaner than other fossil fuels, may help Tacoma transition to a clean-energy economy.

But Merritt also echoed environmental activists who have called on Puget Sound Energy, or PSE, to release more information about the plant's safety.

"PSE must step up and tell us the consequences and the degree of risk," he said. 

The forum was organized by progressive activist groups including Indivisible Tacoma, Fuse Washington, and Black Moms Rock. 

Candidates also outlined their positions on rising rents, gentrification and a federal detention center for immigrations facing deportation that is located in Tacoma.

Voters in an Aug. 1 primary will select two of the three mayoral hopefuls to face off in the general election.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.