Tideflats future development faces decisions on three fronts

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It remains a busy time for discussions about the future of the Tacoma Tideflats and industrial developments on the working waterfront.

The largest of those discussions was a set of public hearings Tuesday on the recently released draft of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the liquefied natural gas plant that Puget Sound Energy is building. The hearings drew hundreds of demonstrators and a parade of comments that ran well into the evening. Tacoma City Council also took up its interim regulations on the Tideflats Tuesday with a final reading now set for Nov. 13. And, of course, the subarea planning process for the waterfront is still in the works.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency held the two comment meetings Tuesday after it released the draft SEIS on the 8-million-gallon LNG facility. The draft report was required after the air quality agency found that the initial environmental review failed to take the collection-to-distribution impacts into account. The draft concluded that the plant would lower the area’s generation of greenhouse gases only if it piped in natural gas from British Columbia.

PSE is building the facility to make cleaner burning fuel for TOTE ships between Tacoma and Alaska as well as to serve as a storage facility for utility customers to use during extreme weather conditions.

Critics of the project range from environmental groups such as the Sightline Institute, Redefine Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. These groups, and others, worry that the plant is an environmental risk located too close to urban areas; that it would continue the nation’s reliance on fossil fuel rather than on more renewable energy sources; and would not leave Puget Sound air, water or land any cleaner.

The newest critic of the project is Citizens for a Healthy Bay (CHB), a 28-year-old environmental nonprofit that monitors developments on Commencement Bay. It had largely remained neutral but has since called out what it claims is PSE’s lack of transparency and use of outdated review methods to promote the project.

“For the SEIS, CHB’s Policy and Technical Advisory Committee, staff and board have reviewed information in light of recently published reports on climate change, and we are alarmed by the new information available on this project,” CHB Executive Director Melissa Malott wrote to the clean air agency. “Within the SEIS is information that shows the LNG plant would have higher climate impacts than the no action alternative for the life of the project, and CHB finds that the LNG project poses unacceptable risks to Commencement Bay and the Tacoma environment.”

The two main concerns that the nonprofit, and other environmental groups, point out is that the math used to determine emission impacts dates back more than a decade, when the “best available” method is readily available and used. The prevailing science shows that greenhouse gases are causing global warming at an ever-increasing rate. That climate change is affecting sea levels and habitats. Those changes could be irreversible in a matter of decades, so the project’s timeline of a century not only downplays its actual impact but adds to the troubles.

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is a massive task and will take drastic, unprecedented measures to accomplish,” Malott wrote. “With the scale of change that needs to happen in mind, the LNG project is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Increasing methane emissions, which are 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in the next few decades is the opposite of what we should be doing.”

The clean air agency will now fold the public comments into its final report, which is expected to be released in February.

While protestors, and a handful of supporters of the LNG project, voiced their thoughts on the Tideflats project, Tacoma City Council held a study session and first reading on the continuation of its interim regulations, which have been in effect for a year and will otherwise expire in December.

The interim regulations are almost certain to pass in some form at the council’s second reading of the ordinance on Nov. 13. Councilmember Ryan Mello, however, introduced a substitute ordinance that would require expanded reviews for heavy industrial operations on the Tideflats. He noted that an expansion of one of the three oil refineries on the Tideflats would essentially be the same as adding a new facility, something the council has been against. Mello argued that the tighter controls are needed as the Trump Administration steps up its calls for gas exports, particularly through West Coast ports to places like China.

“The conditions have substantially changed since we last talked about this a year ago,” he said.

The interim rules, in whatever form they ultimately take, will last another six months before they face another renewal vote, which is a requirement of state law.

The rules put either an outright pause or require more oversight of developments and expansions on the Tideflats as the city conducts a Subarea Plan process to hash out zoning changes for the working water front. The effort will involve the City of Tacoma, Port of Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe, since the tribe’s reservation spans most of the waterway. Formal calls for the parcel-by-parcel review of properties and their zoning rules started a year ago with little agreement on which agencies should drive the process.

That changed when Tacoma threatened to fund the process itself if the governments couldn’t develop a work plan by the end of the year. The current agreement has the city and port fronting $500,000 each for the cost of the plan and $200,000 coming from the tribe. The pact also forms a steering committee made up of two members from each of the governments as well as two from Pierce County and Fife, since they are also area that have vested interest in the future of the Tideflats. This five-government steering committee will develop a work plan – establish timelines, public comment systems and scopes of the work that would all be needed to then hire a consultant to coordinate the work.

Where to find more information

The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact State is available at all Tacoma Public Library branches as well as on Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s website: pscleanair.org. The comment period for the draft ends Nov. 21.

Information about the Tideflats Interim Regulations and the Tideflats Subarea plan can be found at cityoftacoma.org/tideflatsinterim.

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