A roundtable talk on Sept. 19 that included many of the major players on Tacoma’s tideflats provided a glimpse of city efforts that could lead to a lengthy review of zoning rules of the largely industrial waterfront at a time when no public meeting about the tideflats goes without community protests. This Monday afternoon chat was no exception.
About 50 members of the public, many of whom were wearing the signature red clothing of the RedLine Tacoma effort, attended the late-notice meeting to voice their concerns about what they perceive as a lack of transparency and public participation in activities on the industrial lands. They specifically called on the city to reopen the environmental review process regarding a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant that they fear would create safety issues if an accident occurred. The groups also wants better communication about planned projects on the tideflats.
The timing of Monday’s meeting didn’t calm their fears. The meeting had been in the works for weeks, but an announcement to the public was posted on the city’s website on Thursday, Sept. 22 – two business days before the event at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.
“This meeting begins an important dialogue about the planning processes the City of Tacoma and Port of Tacoma will conduct in the upcoming months and beyond,” said Mayor Marilyn Strickland in the press release announcement. She, however, was called away from the meeting before it began because of a family emergency and left Deputy Mayor Ryan Mello to chair the discussion.
“This is not a one-meeting-and-done sort of effort,” he said of the meeting.
The meeting included Port of Tacoma and Port of Seattle officials, union leaders, owners of businesses on the tideflats, city staff and council members from Tacoma and Fife as well as directors from Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber. They gathered to hear briefings about the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a one-year-old partnership between Seattle and Tacoma ports to coordinate operations under one umbrella rather than compete for shipping businesses. They also came to the meeting to hear about the city’s intentions to start a subarea planning process that would review zoning, environmental and allowable uses of the tideflats’ industrial properties.
Subarea plans are basically mini comprehensive plans for specific areas to address growth projections, transportation needs, land-use definitions and environmental issues. The process would take about two years and come at a cost of about $1 million if the City Council moves forward. A tentative schedule would have stakeholders meeting next year with a draft plan possible by the winter of 2018 and a roster of hearings and public forums along the way.
“It’s very intense, and it’s not cheap,” Tacoma Planning Director Peter Huffman said, noting that similar plans around Tacoma had helped the city receive grants for key projects, including the Link light rail expansion, so one for the tideflats would likely translate into federal and state funding for projects. “It shows that Tacoma has its act together and has done its homework.”
Port of Tacoma Commission President Connie Bacon was skeptical about the idea, questioning the necessity, time and expense of conducting an extensive review of the tideflats when there already is a roster of rules and plans that range from the city’s comprehensive plan to the Growth Management Act and the shoreline management program. The Port of Tacoma is also in the early processes of updating its strategic plan to reflect changes in the industry as well as the operational changes born from the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
“We are very much at the beginning, so there is much more to come,” said Port of Tacoma’s Government Affair Director Sean Egan.
The notion of conducting a subarea plan for the tideflats comes at a time when rising grassroots efforts have questioned the proposed projects on the waterfront, namely the now-cancelled plans for what would have been the largest natural gas-to-methanol plant in the world and the ongoing efforts by Puget Sound Energy to site a $275 million LNG facility on the tideflats that would primarily provide liquefied natural gas to container ship operators, although Totem Ocean Marine Express is the only known customer at this point.
The proposed LNG plant is in the final stages of its permitting process but has a handful of lawsuits and utility decisions to address before construction could actually start. The most recent news on that front surrounds PSE’s appeal to block the disclosure of emergency response scenarios. The utility company claims the information should be considered confidential since releasing it could make the 8 million gallon facility a target for terrorist attacks.
PSE will allow people to view the data only after signing a non-disclosure agreement that forbids people from copying or discussing the information. Absent that information, Redline Tacoma members and critics of the proposed facility are combing through more than 200 pages of engineering assessments that Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted to PSE regarding the plant and its safety features, which largely concluded that the plant would be safe and any accident would be contained within the 30-acre site.
A review of that information was included in the plant’s Environmental Impact Statement by an outside consultant, Braemar Engineering. That review suggested that the plant would largely be safe, but mentioned that the plans were not detailed enough for any definitive conclusions, which would have to come after only the final design work is completed.
“[A]n LNG incident scenario involving release of LNG at or near the dock (vapor dispersion and thermal radiation) will extend beyond the security fence to the adjacent property,” the firm noted. That said, the review mentions that LNG is historically safe when properly handled. “Often, the hazards associated with LNG are compared with, and mistakenly assumed to be more severe than, diesel fuel, gasoline, propane and compressed natural gas,” the review stated. “This is not an accurate assessment because LNG vapor is lighter than air above temperatures of -160°F, which means that vapor at ambient temperature will rise and dissipate, thereby reducing vapor concentration such that ignition is not possible.”
Sightline Institute Senior Research Associate Tarika Powell has been monitoring PSE’s proposal on several fronts and questions PSE’s offer to show people the full safety information only after they sign non-disclosure agreements as well as the utility’s claims that an accident would be contained within the facility’s fenceline. The pier it would use to fuel TOTE ships and the trucks PSE would use to transport the LNG to other customers, for example, would be located outside the site’s 30-acre footprint.
“It would be impossible for the vapor to stay within the site,” she said, noting that the recently released reports fall short of the detailed data, as PSE is seeking a ruling to keep Redline Tacoma, Sightline and other groups from viewing the reports. “The bottom line is they need to show the data.”