Skepticism mounts over LNG plant as Tideflats review moves forward

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The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has weighed in on Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant that is under construction on the Tideflats, saying some of the environmental review is “fictional.”

The AG’s Counsel for Environmental Protection Unit submitted a letter to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency about the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) that offered some tough talk on key concerns about the plant, what pollution it would add to the environment and the agency’s oversight of the project that has been allowed to continue building despite a Notice of Violation.

The Attorney General’s Counsel for Environmental Protection Unit William R. Sherman blasted the draft environmental report on a number of issues, including not accounting for the construction that has already occurred when it addresses any impacts to nature if the LNG plant were never built.

“In short, the No Action Alternative as described in the draft SEIS is no longer an available alternative. … In addition, the draft SEIS asserts that ‘There are no construction impacts associated with the No Action Alternative.’ This is plainly incorrect. Because construction impacts have already occurred… As currently drafted, the SEIS evaluates a No-Action Alternative that can only be described as fictional.”

The environmental review was conducted with the idea that natural gas would only come from Canada. This assumption lowers the facility’s overall ground-to-facility levels of greenhouse gas emissions. But natural gas is a volatile market and conditions could change, but those possible changes were not addressed.

“It is not clear why that assumption should be expected to hold true for the 40-year lifespan of the project, especially as United States natural gas production has increased substantially in recent years,” Sherman wrote, noting that other possible sources of natural gas should be addressed in the final version of the report.

That final report should be out in February and offer answers to many questions critics have had since news of the plant first bubbled to the surface more than two years ago. Construction began without all the required permits. Sherman referred to that as the “snowballing effect,” of allowing construction without key data and information so the completion of the facility becomes the only option since all alternatives weren’t properly considered.

In a nutshell, the LNG plant would be an 8-million-gallon facility that would pipe in natural gas from British Columbia and freeze it so that it becomes a liquid. It would then be sold as a cleaner-burning fuel for container ships that run between Tacoma and Alaska. The site would also serve as LNG storage for use during the few times a year gas demand peaks.

Critics of the project range from environmental groups such as the Sightline Institute, Citizens for a Healthy Bay, 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 and would not leave Puget Sound air, water or land any cleaner. They further argue the plant mingles PSE’s role as a utility company with a risky private venture at no benefit to rate payers.

The concern over the LNG plant boiled over a year ago and lead to Tacoma and the port to agree to conduct a Subarea Plan of the Tideflats that would involve long-range visioning of the working waterfront as well as reviewing all land-use rules. The process lagged for a year over who would sit at the table during the process. It is back on track with staff members from the city, port, Fife, Pierce County and the Puyallup Tribe developing a work plan for officials from each government to follow. The first meeting of the five-government group of electeds is set for Jan. 4.

Top on the agenda for that meeting will be to begin drafting a scope of work that would lead to the selection of a consultant. That selection could come as early as April and provide a shepherd to guide the complex process through what could be a two- to three-year effort.

“In my opinion, we haven’t even started the clock on that process,” Tacoma’s Principal Planner Stephen Atkinson said.

The expense of the work will be split three ways. The city and port are each fronting $500,000, and the Tribe has pledge another $200,000. In the meantime, most of the working waterfront is under interim regulations that restrict developments and expansions but must be reviewed and readopted every six months until the subarea plan is adopted and permanent zoning rules pass the City Council.

Another key decision regarding the Tideflats came this month, when the City Council approved the purchase of land from the Port of Tacoma for a new fire station. The $365,000 parcel on East 11th Street sits next to the historic Fire Station 5, which was deemed too small and structurally unfit for a modern station. The Tacoma Fire Department once had three stations on the working waterfront, but budget cuts brought that down to zero, when Station 5 was mothballed during the Great Recession. A new fire was part of the permitting agreement for the $310 million LNG plant, which sits across the street. PSE provided $500,000 toward the new station. The architectural and design work is underway and will likely run through most of 2019.

Also recently under review is WestRock’s pulp and paper mill that is moving forward with upgrades to its chip-screening system that will allow for higher production volumes using a cleaner process than its current equipment. The mill also proposes to increase the use of its gas boiler through the use of natural gas to allow the mill to use additional steam to generate electricity for sale. This bump in operational capacity will cause an overall increase in WestRock’s emissions of dust and air pollution in the form of formaldehyde and chloroform, albeit below state thresholds and air quality standards.

Where to find more information

The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Puget Sound Energy’s liquified natural gas plant is available at all Tacoma Public Library branches as well as on Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s website: pscleanair.org.
Information about the Tideflats Interim Regulations and the Tideflats Subarea plan can be found at cityoftacoma.org/tideflatsinterim.
The comment period to the Department of Ecology on WestRock Tacoma’s project is Dec. 28.

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