By Erik Bjornson
For the last 100 years, Tacoma has had little or no meaningful regulation of permissible industrial uses of the tideflats. No matter how toxic or dangerous to human life, nearly any use was accepted by Tacoma while other cities around the nation had long ago become more environmentally conscientious. Tacoma’s failure to regulate appropriate uses has lead to a great disinvestment in the city and the creation of number of super fund sites.
Now that the methanol refinery proposal is dead, Tacoma residents have an opportunity to come together to plan for land use on port property that supports the health of Tacomans and is environmentally wise as well as economically sound.
After 100 years of neglect, the Tacoma City Council may finally start the process to determine the appropriate uses for the tideflats as other similarly situated cities have done decades ago. A well-designed public process could help rebuild the trust that Tacomans have in their elected officials to protecting their health and the local environment.
The current lack of confidence in the City of Tacoma and the port resulted in the historic opposition from the proposed methanol plant by thousands of residents, university professors, legislators, the Puyallup Tribe, adjacent cities, neighborhood associations and many other groups.
Tacoma cannot regulate its land use policies by relying on public protests, citizen initiatives and state legislative bills. Having sat on the sidelines during the environmental impact study process, the City of Tacoma must now take the lead as it alone controls the permissible uses on Port of Tacoma property.
Established in 1918, the port has been the hub for shipping and industrial uses, and a source of family wage jobs. However, much has changed since 1918.
First, with the advance of technology, larger-scaled and more dangerous uses are possible. The proposed methanol plant would have been the largest in the world with unknown environmental and health threats.
Second, much housing has been built on or near the port property since 1918. The entire Northeast Tacoma community has been developed recently and is immediately adjacent to the port. In 2000, the City of Tacoma approved construction of the Northwest Detention Center, which now houses up to 1,575 people on the Tideflats.
Third, Tacoma has only recently had sufficiently good air quality to be removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s “non-attainment” designation. Additional pollution from the port could cause the EPA to place Tacoma back into that designation.
Fourth, Tacoma has been experiencing water droughts recently. In 2015, TPU requested that Tacomans reduce their water use 10 percent.
Fifth, the health and environmental standards and health expectations of Tacomans have changed since 1918. Tacoma residents are no longer willing to live in a city where the Asarco plant spews toxic waste and the stench of industrial activities (such as the Aroma of Tacoma) are permitted to continue unabated.
Many polluted sites that were occupied by industry are still heavily contaminated. Today, far more is known about the health and environmental consequences of chemicals and petroleum products.
No one is suggesting that port property be rezoned to only allow yoga studios and organic tofu restaurants. However, the city can no longer take a laissez-faire attitude which allows any industrial activity, no matter how dangerous, polluting or water consuming given the proximity of the port property to residents.
In his March 6 issue of Viewpoint, Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms wrote: “My vision is of a city that is less industrial than its past. We can have jobs and commerce and quality of life, but we also must have a better understanding of what the parcels in the port and surrounding area are able to handle and what are the right projects and zoning to create the future we want.”
Other council members have made similar public remarks.
With public input, the Tacoma Planning Commission should determine the appropriate uses that could be permitted in an industrial zone adjacent to an urban area, which has pre-existing pollution issues and a limited water supply. Examining existing practices of other similarly situated cities would be a good starting point.
With the right processes and patience, the trust of the public for the city to protect the health of Tacomans could start to be restored.
Erik Bjornson, a Tacoma attorney, is a former chairman of the North End Neighborhood Council.