The proposed $3.4 billion methanol plant in Tacoma is a hot topic right now. If built, it would be the biggest thing to happen to Tacoma in years. In any case, this is a pivotal moment for the city. The city is presented with the choice between selling out to the fossil fuel industry—using natural gas obtained by fracking to produce methanol for China which will ultimately be turned into plastics, or hopefully a cleaner, greener future. Citizens are upset, not only because the plant threatens turn the clock back to a time when Tacoma was a stinky, polluted industrial town, but also because of the complete lack of transparency in the decision-making processes of the Port of Tacoma and the city government.
This is a fascinating story about an environmental issue that has global as well as local consequences. Richard Lovering approached me with the idea of documenting the events surrounding the Tacoma methanol plant controversy as they unfold. This interview with Washington State Senator Jeannie Darneille, (27th Legislative District, Ruston and Tacoma) is the first formal interview we recorded for this project. This video was made in collaboration with Katya Palladina who was the videographer.
Jeannie is a very knowledgeable articulate speaker, and her passion for this issue really showed. Right afterwards I felt I needed to edit a short video of her talking about the major points of the controversy. I felt it needed to be shared immediately to raise awareness of the issue through social media.
I am presenting the full transcript of the interview here now because Jeannie has a lot more to say than can be covered in a short video, about how the City and Port of Tacoma kept plans for the methanol plant project under wraps for 2 years, our economic relationship with China, fracking, the potential impact the methanol plant would have on water and electricity, the dangers of transporting explosive chemicals through narrow urban waterways, and of storing them on reclaimed land that could liquify in a major earthquake, and much more.
RICHARD: Jeannie, thank you so much for talking with us. So how did you come across this issue of the proposed methanol plant in Tacoma?
JEANNIE: Well, it was kind of interesting. As an elected official I was in the House of Representatives for 12 years, and have now been in the Senate. This is now my 4th year in the Senate, here in the 27th district in Tacoma. I represent about two thirds of Tacoma in this district, so basically all the area surrounding Commencement Bay from Point Defiance around to Browns Point, and then like a sling shot handle going down the east side, but all of Downtown Tacoma, all of the Tideflats. And for most of that time I also represented the City of Fife. During this recent redistricting that was pared off, and I added another section of Southeast Tacoma, but for longest time I had also represented that community.
So when I had a constituent call me from Northeast Tacoma and express concerns about this plant that has the potential to go in our Tideflats region, that piqued my interest because the person outlined concerns about safety. Public health, public safety—these are issues that I’ve worked on for years and years, not necessarily around the environmentalist angle however. I did get interested enough to follow their request, which was to come to a hearing at the Port of Tacoma on May 1st, 2014.
As I mentioned, I’ve never really been much of an environmentalist. By that I mean that I have a 100% voting record supporting environmental causes, but I’ve never taken the lead on ferreting out all the information about environmental conflicts, nor have I taken the lead in sponsoring legislation. I always had great advice and great experts in my caucuses and I followed their lead, just as they follow my lead on half a dozen other kinds of issues. This was new to me, but the issue of public safety and the concerns of a neighborhood were definitely things I had worked on before. And the issues about public health have been pretty much central to my work in the legislature.
So I tried to find out information about the hearing. I went so far as to go to the website for the Port of Tacoma. I did find reference to a meeting taking place. It told me what the agenda was going to be and included this discussion with the Northwest Innovations Works, LLC. It didn’t tell me the place and didn’t tell me the time. And that was my first inkling that this was not an issue that the proponents wanted to have known in the community. I was not deterred by that. I had my staff call their office and find out when the meeting was taking place and where, and to inform them that they didn’t have the information on their website.
I rushed over because it happened to be that afternoon. I arrived there at the very end of a queue of people lining up into a rather small room, the conference room for the Port of Tacoma. I arrived at the meeting and signed in to testify. In the legislature we are used to having hearings on bills and there are some controversial subjects where we might have hundreds and hundreds of people signed up to testify, or at least signing in with either a "pro" or a "con", so I was surprised after almost being late for the meeting that i was actually only number 17 to sign up. I had no idea what I would actually say, because I didn’t know anything about the project, nor who any of the players were, but I sat down in this somewhat small room.
Every wall with the room was lined with members of unions who were dressed in their hazard clothes—bright oranges, bright yellows, bright greens—and I knew then who at least one of the players was that had an interest in this proposed leasing of the old Kaiser plant site in the Port of Tacoma to this LLC.
So I listened to the testimony. It started with 4 or 5 representatives of Northwest Innovation Works, and then there were many representatives from labor unions talking about the construction jobs, and then the jobs that would be for permanent employees that would manage the plant after it went live.
I was bringing up the rear after only a couple of my constituents from Northeast Tacoma spoke, two couples. Their testimony basically was exactly what they told me on the phone. They live in an area very close to where the plant would be established. They drive by—there is one access road up to Northeast Tacoma, and it’s very, very close to where the plant is located. They were very concerned about any potential leakage into the Hylebos waterway. They were concerned about air contamination. And they were mostly concerned about what the plans were in case there is a catastrophic event.
When I actually got up to speak I began with this sentence: “I believe this is a project that everyone would love to love. We’ve heard that it provides good jobs. We’ve heard that it would positively impact the environment—the global warming that we are becoming so much, unfortunately, accustomed to. But there are significant gaps in information. You have done nothing, as far as I can see, to reach out to elected officials. You’ve done nothing to reach out to neighborhoods that would be impacted if such a catastrophic event were to take place. And I can’t see how this can move forward until education, dialogue, and advancement of transparency well above what you’ve demonstrated thus far, were to take place.”
And then the hearing concluded with the four members that were present at the commission meeting voting unanimously to award a 30-year lease to the LLC, this after several of us had made the plea to just wait. What was the urgency of voting on this at that meeting? Well, quite frankly, the urgency was they wanted to do it ahead of any public dialogue, ahead of any transparency and ahead of any kind of education to the community.
So I left there feeling concerned but also recognizing how little I knew about the issue. I needed to self-educate. I needed to reach out and find more information about this whole issue. How do we get liquified natural gas (LNG) into our county? What is this process of transference? And what is ahead for us in terms of the educational process that needs to take place?
One of the challenges in being a legislator is you have to recognize that sometimes a little bit of information makes you dangerous. I didn’t want to come off as being dangerous after a short amount of time. So I took quite a while talking with people.
I had the opportunity to meet with a person who just moved to Tacoma who worked in the LNG field for 30 years and had retired here in Tacoma. I had the opportunity to learn about some of the real catastrophic events that can happen at sea (he was a ship’s captain also as part of his work), coming into ports, and going through narrow waterways. I heard words of caution from him about whether or not a plant like this had any place at all in an urban center. I was piqued by that and did research into how communities had addressed this issue.
Of course, there is very little to know about communities that have worked on this because it’s new. Fewer than 10 years ago the United States was an importing nation. We imported liquid natural gas. It was only through the inauguration of fracking that we found reserves that not only were sufficient, or had been deemed to be sufficient, for our own domestic use, but are very marketable, and we became and exporting nation.
There is lots of controversy obviously about fracking. One of the things I learned about fracking is that it takes requires a very small sand, a very dense sand, that’s used in the actual fracking process to push the gas out towards an area where it can be drained and put in a reservoir. That small sand only comes from 3 areas of the world: two of those mines are in China and one is in Kuwait.
So then I started thinking, let’s follow the bouncing ball here. Who takes the risk? Who pays for it? And what is involved in this whole process of fracking? You follow the sand into the country. It goes to the central part of our country—Oklahoma, Tennessee, wherever they are fracking—and it’s used there in the process of bringing that liquified natural gas to the surface, at great cost potentially to the environment in each of those states. Earthquakes in Oklahoma—not a normal occurrence! So then where does it go? Then we ship it through pipelines and it comes to a town like Tacoma.
There are many pipelines across the country. We’ve had pipelines moving gas and moving liquified natural gas through our community for years and years and years. Most people don’t know that we have a refinery on the Tideflats right now that for over 50 years has pumped gas—jet fuel—out to McChord Air Force Base, across the east side of Tacoma through neighborhoods, along a railway track for 50 years. There is a constant process of making sure that that pipeline is not leaking. Part of it is above ground. Part of it is below ground. That same thing is happening across our country with pipelines now. There is great cost to the maintenance of the pipelines so that they don’t cause a catastrophe.
Then you look at where this natural gas is coming from, and what the process for transforming it to methanol and shipping it to China. The proponents of this plant and this relationship with the Chinese government say that this is an incredible opportunity for the citizens of Tacoma and Pierce County, that it is a $3.4 billion private investment in our community. I have no problem—no problem—confronting that piece of this argument. This is not “private money”. China owns the American debt. This is a situation where we are buying a product from China, bringing it here, fracking our country, taking the gas out, bringing it here, changing it into a product that they want, and shipping it back to them. To their complete profit, and to our complete risk.
So now we are going to look at how do we label that? What does that process look like to you? I am enough of a historian to know that it looks an awful like the British Commonwealth to me. Took over the world—a large part of the world—used local labor at a very low cost for a product that had great import to the British Commonwealth. And whether that was minerals or diamonds or you name it, they took it from those countries without their consent. We are sitting here consenting—consenting—to this process in our country.
RICHARD: Enough that we get 200 jobs.
JEANNIE: Two hundred sixty jobs— let’s be precise. I have been a long supporter of labor causes, but I don’t understand how we look at the level of risk that is associated with this project, how we look a the level of water needed alone to actually do the transformation between liquified natural gas to methanol, and think that 260 jobs is worth that.
This plant is located very close to the city of Fife. Fife is a really interesting city. It sits and is divided by Interstate 5, but there are only 5,000 people that live in the city of Fife, and over 50,000 people come there to work every day. Five thousand people live there and 50,000 come to work there. And it’s an around the clock 24/7 kind of community through warehousing, manufacturing, casinos, gas stations, restaurants—you name it. It’s a small town, but it doesn’t feel like a small town.
This community had not been talked to by the LLC at all. There was no one from the city of Fife at that hearing May 1st, 2014. I raised the issue with members of the City Council of Fife one after the other, and none had heard of the project. Yet the Port of Tacoma commissioners had already granted a 30-year lease to this company.
You know we just had a large public hearing [the January 21st Enviromental Impact Statement Scoping Meeting in Tacoma] the about what the elements of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would be. I was in Olympia. The session was already going on, but I was able to leave a committee hearing and barrel up the freeway to get here. It was supposed to start at 6:30 PM. It started at 5:30 because they opened the doors at 5:00 and the rooms were completely full at 5:30 and they felt that they needed to move ahead.
So when I arrived at 6:00 I was told there was no room at the inn—not in the main room (500 seats), and not in the anteroom, which had 200-300 seats, and there were about 200 of us outside waiting for people to leave the hearing after they had spoken so that we could get in. So I got in about 6:35. I didn’t have the opportunity to hear the LLC give their presentation but by that time they had gone through the process of a “pro” speaker and a “con” speaker, a “pro” speaker and a “con” speaker. By 6:30 all they had left to hear from was the “con” speakers. While there was an occasional positive speaker in there, I was there until 10:30 and all that rest of that time there was people expressing concerns.
I went back to the legislature the next day and I asked my colleagues, “Have you ever had 1,000 of your constituents show up at one place? One place?” No. No one had ever had this experience.
I was so struck that night by the presentations by people from my district, the people who had lived in this community for 3 and 4 generations, and the people that were brand new to this community who moved here because of the hope and the promise that community gave to them—the affordability, the friendliness, the fact that it had had a lousy reputation in the past, and it had a better reputation today. I listened to the people that had participated in building our downtown, not the structures that are there, but the ones that were empty in the 1980s and are full again now because of the the investments that government made and the local community made in rebuilding, reenergizing, and reinvesting in this promise that is Tacoma. From the University of Washington Tacoma, the reboot of our Federal Building, the light rail—I mean I could go on and on about the ways I love my city. And all of that is threatened by this plant. This one thing.
The young people that spoke, the older people that spoke, the Native Americans that spoke all pointed to that one stark reality, which is that we have everything going for us in this community. We have a vibrant museum district. We have a vibrant Port of Tacoma. We have invested in cleaning up waterways, and really making our city strong. And for this plant to undo the progress that has been made in Tacoma, Washington, or even to threaten to do that, should move any policymaker who is still on the fence about whether or not to support this project.
I had already made my decision before I went in that room. The Port Commissioners had asked me not to speak against the project. They wanted me to wait—as they did all of the policy makers in Pierce County—wanted us to wait until all the facts were out. And yet I haven’t received any new facts from their side of the argument since they promised to give new facts to us. The die was cast for me. But I was just so amazed—the eloquence of my constituents was the frosting on that for me.
I will tell you that I am petty much alone right now in terms of actively voicing, and advocating to my constituents that they need to know more about this project, and they need to mobilize.
I have talked to my colleagues in other districts in the state who have undertaken big projects like this before, trying to stop negative programs from coming into their districts. I spoke with Senator Sharon Nelson who is our minority leader in the Senate Democratic Caucus. She lives on Vashon island. She certainly knows a lot about ASARCO and the horrible effects on her community right across the waterway from where the ASARCO plant had existed, and which now quite frankly is a lovely and evolving, amazing walkable community with lots of amenities which once was a slag heap and a disaster zone. I talked with senator Christine Rolfes from Kitap county where the NASCAR industry had decided they wanted to put up a new NASCAR race track in a rural part of Kitsap county. Her project with trying to rebut that offer took a couple, three years. Senator Nelson’s attempts to end a quarry upsetting the environmental and ecological balance on Maury Island took 9 years.
So I think we are in this for the long haul. I don’t think this is going to be a one or two year project for us, to say “No” and mean it, and to be successful in bringing more people to our side and more policymakers to our side, and for the general public to become more aware of this project. It’s certainly going to be an issue that divides our community. I don’t want that to happen, but I think it’s got the kind of magnitude that we are going to see sharp differences from one side to another.
RICHARD: Do you think it will impact on electoral politics?
JEANNIE: Yes, I absolutely do think it could impact on electoral politics.
RICHARD: Specifically where?
JEANNIE: This project is in the 27th district now, whether the public health threats reach outside the 27th district—certainly they do—Fife now, for instance. Right at the border where the plant will be located is in the 25th district. So far, no legislators have come to any meetings nor have they shown much interest in this topic from the 25th district.
But our two representatives from here in the 27th district have met with me and others. They’ve been working with me to write a very long letter to the EIS process so that we could have questions that have been asked of us and make sure those questions are answered in the EIS. I think we are moving together as a delegation on this to some degree. I’m not going to speak for my colleagues until they want to be spoken for, but we’re not in full accord yet, and we certainly have not had a discussion about next steps in terms of how this will proceed for our role in it.
It could play in electoral politics, certainly. Any of us could have candidate run against us this year from the other side of the topic. And I would venture to say I will lose labor support in my re-election bid. But if I were to look just to Facebook and see now literally scores of people from this movement—scores of constituents I didn’t know but who saw me at the hearing, who have seen what I had written on Facebook, who heard me talk about this issue who are trying to friend me and keep up with where I am on this issue, I would say this is a movement that will have its roots and its success in social media.
This is not something that many campaigns have had to grapple with, quite frankly. It’s a whole new world with social media now, and the tweets and the Facebook posts are going to rule in this educational process . We already see how innovations in social media have influenced and energized and mobilized groups around other topics, including race relations and even responding to the weather and threats of the weather. We can see it working to the good, and I think it will be an excellent tool that will be used to educate the community about the threats of this plant going in.
RICHARD: What I’ve heard you say is so many times it was a question of getting the word out. It is to the methanol plant proponents not to get the word out generally, and it is to those who are opposing it to get the word out generally. What do you foresee is the best way to get the word out as generally as possible?
JEANNIE: I think that it’s a continuation of things that have already been done. I’d love to teach an Advocacy 101 class to folks who are just new into this whole field, in trying to mobilize and trying to make a force for good. I think there is a great threat that they will do some things wrong that will negatively impact what they are trying to achieve. So I’d like to caution people that this is a process. We won’t fix it in a day. Be calm. Use some good strategy to move forward, but be persistent in messaging.
Years ago our Caucus in Olympia had hired a consultant to try to figure out what was the message the Democrats wanted to portray. He came to do a strategy session with us and said, “Well I looked at last year’s messaging, and the Republican party had three messages, and the Democratic party had 83 messages.”
So it’s very important for us to know what we want to say, and to repeat that over and over and over again, whether it is spinning an argument, or pivoting it to that message over and again. It wasn’t overnight that people learned that “two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun” was a Big Mac! It won’t be overnight that people learn that this is a project that has potential threats to our community, our air, our water. It has a blast zone that has been drawn to me. The room we are in now is within this blast zone. And that it could take out portions of Marine View Drive which is the one access road into Northeast Tacoma. It could take out Route 509, which was built to provide a parallel road to Interstate 5 so that the locals could move around and let the other folks fight for space on I-5. It could take out portions of I-5 where the state is now going to be investing over a billion dollars in a transportation project to finish Route 167, which will be coming in and hooking into the Port of Tacoma for the transportation of good and services in and out of the Port to improve our economic development. It’s going to have the impact of potentially (and certainly within the blast zone as well) to take out a prison, a federal prison that exists on the Tideflats where 1,500 persons are being detained right now. I can’t imagine what kind of exit plan would be sufficient to continue to have public safety and to provide for personal safety for those 1,500 people, and the hundreds of people that are working at that detention center.
You know, there is a reason why the City of Tacoma has never granted permits to build condos on the other side of the 11th Street bridge. A big reason. They haven’t done it is because it is fill dirt. If you were to look at early photographs of Tacoma, you will see the point just below where we are right now, where Thea Foss used to get in her little boat and began to ferry people across where it’s now Northeast Tacoma. There were no fingers of land that went out along waterways where industry has been planted over these years.
As you know we have fault lines through this area. We have learned from the New York Times that the Big One is coming (of course, we’ve always known that) We’ve seen what a lahar could look like coming down from Mt. Rainier. We know that the Puyallup River, which comes right behind us here, is the passageway for a lahar coming off the mountain. And we know that this kind of fill in an earthquake can simply turn to dust.
We’ve always lived with threats. We have other refineries on the Tideflats, but we’ve never had people living there for a reason. It’s not safe. And yet a former city council passed a resolution accepting an offer from the federal government to place a detention center in that same property where people from Tacoma cannot live.
There are all kinds of deals that happen like that over the years that only later are the people of Tacoma made aware. We have the opportunity because we are aware now before the plant is built, before the plant is operational, before the first drop of liquified natural gas makes its way into the plant and gets blasted with 11 million gallons of water a day, and before the first ship leaves into our Commencement Bay, once one of the biggest EPA Superfund sites. We have cleaned it up to a large degree. We have cleaned up the Foss Waterway. We have cleaned up the Kaiser plant upon which this plant will be located if it’s implemented.
I asked a question last week of our staff in Olympia when we were having a presentation by the Department of Ecology. I asked if any of the cleanup dollars, the millions and millions and millions of dollars that have come out of taxpayers pockets that we have used for cleaning up toxic sites, “Have we ever cleaned up the same site twice?” And the answer of course was “No”. And then there was the, “Why? Are we building something toxic on one of the sites we’ve cleaned up?” And I had to answer “Yes”.
There is so much more that I could talk about. I’ve not really talked about the threats to children and the threats to other investments that we’ve made in the waterway. But I would say I feel very optimistic about the people of Tacoma and Pierce County, and even our neighbors just over the hill in South King County, just to our left on Maury Island and Vashon Island, to rise up with us and have our voices known in this effort.
I’ve talked with the Governor twice about this. I’ve talked with the Governor’s staff twice for about an hour about this project. I believe I’ve opened the Governor’s eyes to something he initially supported, which was a “jobs and environmentally friendly” product.
The goal of the Chinese government is to take the methanol that they will receive from this project, and convert a coal-burning plant that makes olefins (plastics) and convert that to a methanol-burning plant. Much fewer emissions, much better for their air quality in China and overall a good thing, were we able to have access to clean fuel at the place where we are currently using dirty fuel. In this case though, we are asking the United States to take all the risks to provide that clean fuel to this area of China. Unfortunately, they don’t have the materials to do that themselves domestically. But I don’t think Tacoma, Washington is the location. And I think that the people of Tacoma will make that loud and clear.
RICHARD: Given that this plant is going to demand just about as much gas electricity and potable water as the entire rest of Tacoma, couldn’t his mean that utility rates could go up on all of those things for everybody living in Tacoma?
JEANNIE: It is absolutely true, and no doubt that they will have increased utilization of utilities that currently come in to Tacoma. The rates are established based on the old supply and demand kind of analysis. We have got the supply of water we need to create electricity through turbines that are located outside of Tacoma but in our watershed, which includes Lake Cushman, Lake Alder, the Green River. We operate on hydro—that’s the major source for electricity for this whole basin. If we were to have a user come in to our mix that is going to double the utilization of that water. Double. We’ve got well over a million people that live in this catchment area. One plant is going to double utilization. There is no way that that’s not going to increase our rates. We don’t have sufficient water, freshwater, in the watershed for our current needs. Everyone knows that last summer we were asked to reduce our consumption by 10%. That was voluntary. What happens if we face another hot summer, another year of drought? Well during the course of the life of this plant—30, 40, 50 years—we are going to face many years of drought. There is no question in my mind. The citizens of Tacoma will have to ask our utilities to go elsewhere, since the water table will not be sufficient for that kind of utilization. We will have to purchase that energy from another area. We currently have one of the cheapest forms—hydro—but what if we have to purchase something that is more expensive? Yes, our rates could go up.
Do you know that every Friday afternoon there are families lined up today at our utility office asking for, petitioning for keeping their lights on over the weekend, keeping their heat on over the weekend, while they try to muster enough money to pay their bill?
We have a community that is facing economic challenges. It’s not unlike in many ways the communities elsewhere in the country that have been the locations of these kind of plants. We know that this particular company wants to build another plant in southwest Washington on the Columbia River in a community that has been hard pressed by economic disadvantage—Kalama.
We don’t have to look too far for the other plant in their 3-plant proposal, which is in Louisiana, along an area that is called “Cancer Alley” because of the types of plants that have been built there over the years, which is a largely a community of economically disadvantaged individuals living there.
If this bad air quality drifts as the wind is blowing right now to our east side of Tacoma, it blows into our most economically disadvantaged portion of our county.
So there are issues around rates. We have issues around economic security. We have issues around public education and the transparency of this whole project that have created enough concern for me that I have actually proposed legislation that really has—I’ll say right up front—has little chance of being passed. I dropped a bill as soon as I could after I realized that I could actually request that a particular tax be applied to this project.
They, under current structures right now, could quality for a sales tax abatement. In other words they won’t pay sales tax on any kind of manufacturing that they do, any kind of building that they do. This has been largely an economic development tool that the state has used to try to attract companies into coming into Washington. But in this case it could obviously backfire for us. It has brought into our midst not one, but two plants proposed in Washington state by this particular LLC.
So I proposed that the tax abatement not apply to projects relating to liquified natural gas being converted into methanol. That bill was referred to the Trade and Economic Development Committee. I thought because it was a tax bill that it would be referred to the Ways and Means Committee which I serve on, but instead it is going to a committee that has already completed its work for the session. It was a direct decision on the part of the Republicans handling which committee things go to, to not place it in a committee that was still doing its work.
That is a disappointment. But I have raised the interest and the awareness of my colleagues in this fight. And because I know that this will not be taken care of in this year, I presume I will come back next year with something earlier in the session with a greater potential to be passed, and we will see where that takes us.
There is also a bill currently being considered that is a “streamlining” bill, meaning that, for what they call “projects of state significance” (certainly a project of $3.4 billion project has state significance) the bill would take away their requirement to actually receive permits or even have to apply for permits for the plant. I have worked with Republicans on an amendment to their bill. They are going to be accepting the amendment if all works out well this next week and the bill will pass. It is a bill I voted against obviously in the past, and I will probably still vote against it even though I’ve got it amended. It will hopefully go to its death over in the House. Again, what we do with these kinds of things, whether it’s dropping a bill or getting an amendment on a bill, in some ways we are trying to make the pig look better — you know, “putting a bow on the pig”. But we’re going to be able to count on the House to not pass that bill which they have rejected in the past, so we won’t see industries of all types getting out of doing permitting processes that we are relying on right now as we look ahead to how this plant will be implemented. There are shoreline permits. There are air permits. I mean there are all kinds of things ahead of them.
RICHARD: I think they devoted 3 years for the permitting.
JEANNIE: Just to the permitting. I’ve got time as well if I’m re-elected to go back to Olympia and continue to try to figure out what a state role would be, in trying to put sideboards around this project, to eliminate the project, to make so many headaches for the project that it doesn’t pencil out. Whatever I can do.