As the fossil fuel industry works to turn the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel hub, a Thin Green Line stands in its way. Producer Barbara Bernstein’s latest project, “Holding the Thin Green Line,” explores how local communities are fighting the fossil fuel industry’s push for massive fracked gas projects in Washington and Oregon. In part 1, we heard about plans to build the world’s largest methanol refineries in Tacoma and Kalama, Washington. This week we hear part 2, “A View from the Blast Zone,” on the struggle to stop a massive LNG facility that is being built at the Port of Tacoma.
Since this show wrapped up production, Kristin Ang won a seat on the Port of Tacoma Commission.
Bernstein’s work was funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Steven and Jan Marx.
Special thanks to Columbia Riverkeeper, Power Past Fracked Gas, Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, Dan Serres, Claudia Riedener and John Carlton.
Paul Che-oke-tan: As species are disappearing, as the salmon are going extinct that once lived and plugged the rivers literally. Orcas. As Tahlaquah carried around her deceased calf for thousands of miles, in several circuits around the Salish Sea, screaming out to the world, asking the world to save us. “Look what you have done to the water, look at what you have done to the natural world. But don’t just save us, save yourselves from your own foolishness.” That was her message we got to listen to that.
Paul Che-oke-tan, of the Vancouver Island Saanich tribe, and founder of the Protectors of the Salish Sea, tells the story of Tahlaquah, a southern resident Orca whose pod faces extinction. As she carried her dead calf in circles around the Salish Sea during the summer of 2018, she riveted the world and became an icon for citizens opposing massive fossil fuel projects across the Pacific Northwest, particularly in Tacoma.
Eric de Place: Tacoma has recently been confronted with two really big fossil fuel projects.
Eric de Place is director of the Thin Green Line at Sightline Institute in Seattle.
Eric: There was a proposal to create a methanol refinery, would have been the biggest in the world. There was a huge public backlash to it. And at the same time of that backlash, was there was another project, Tacoma LNG project, and that was kind of cranking ahead steadily while everyone was focused on opposing the big methanol project.
Lou Paulsen: We’re in an industry that is trying to move away from fossil fuels. There is no immediate solution.
Lou Paulsen is the director of Strategic Operations projects and risk management at the Port of Tacoma.
Lou: Shouldn’t we deploy LNG, the best available fuel, until we come up with something better. Because if we don’t, if the rest of the industry makes the right transition, to a cleaner fuel, then not only will we lose business, but we’ll be left with the dirty ships.
John Carlton: TOTE Maritime Shipping is a cargo company that runs two ships weekly from Tacoma to Alaska.
John Carlton is a resident of Tacoma and an activist with the grassroots environment group, Redefine Tacoma.
John C: TOTE currently uses bunker fuel to power their ships. Because of restrictions on exhaust emissions put forward by the International Maritime Organization, they’ve chosen the route of using liquified natural gas in the future.
Clare Petrich: TOTE knew that they had the new requirements that they had to adhere to.
Clare Petrich is a long time Port of Tacoma Commissioner.
Clare: They began talking with companies that would be able to provide the LNG to them. So they went to Puget Sound Energy.
Eric: Puget Sound Energy is a privately-held utility. They serve a lot of Western Washington. Now they sing a song of low carbon future and environmental responsibility. While they’re singing that song they are one of the last utilities to be burning coal in Montana and still delivering that to customers in Western Washington.
They have systematically stalled out climate policy and carbon pricing legislation. They know what they’re doing politically and that poses an extra challenge for opposing their projects.
Claudia Riedener: While we were really busy fighting methanol,
Claudia Riedener has lived in Tacoma since 1998. She is a Tacoma ceramic artist and co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Redefine Tacoma.
Claudia: The city and the Port and Puget Sound Energy were already way down the road into building this LNG refinery.
Nanette Reetz: There wasn’t like meetings that you could go to, to get educated.
Nanette Reetz lives in NE Tacoma and is part of Redefine Tacoma.
Nanette: You weren’t going to the Department of Ecology and they were having information meetings. There wasn’t public comment. It had already closed. The environmental impact study was already finished. We were just left out of the process.
Eric: The Tacoma LNG is designed to take fracked gas, super cool it into a liquid state and then store it.
John C: We’re on the Blair-Hylebos peninsula at the Port of Tacoma, where the liquified natural gas tank for Puget Sound Energy is going up. This is not only going to be a storage location for liquified natural gas. It’s going to be a distribution hub. And so they’re going to be putting this into trucks and driving it off site. They’re going to be piping it over to TOTE transport services to fuel their ships and they’re also intending to use it in some fashion via rail.
Eric: Normally with LNG you do not site it in an urban area because liquified natural gas is extremely combustible. If it explodes it is an enormous bomb that could go off. And so it’s sited right in the middle of Tacoma and you’re going to put it on ships. That raises concerns about how you move those ships safely in and out of the harbor and how you keep other ships away from them while those ships are moving.
Nanette: It’s in a liquefaction zone, so if we had an earthquake it’s on an earthquake fault. It’s in a lahar zone for Mt. Rainier. And not only that, it’s surrounded by the huge petroleum tank farm named Targa and then also U.S. Oil.
Claudia: This LNG facility would be fourteen stories tall and about 130 feet wide. It would hold eight million gallons of LNG.
Tarika Powell: You keep it at a temperature that’s negative 260 degrees.
Tarika Powell is a researcher at Sightline Institute.
Tarika: At that temperature it actually converts into a liquid and it condenses in volume by one six hundredth.
Claudia: Those eight million gallons in the holding tank translate to 166 kilotons of TNT. So that’s about the equivalent of eleven Hiroshima bombs.
Tarika: Once LNG is taken out of its storage tank and is no longer at negative 260 degrees, it can very rapidly convert back to a gas and those conversions from liquid state to gaseous state are where you encounter a lot of the safety hazards. And so the more often you are transferring this fuel back and forth the more safety hazards you have to consider.
Lou: The tank of LNG cannot be permitted if the approved analysis for that facility under the EIS would indicate that an explosion or an event on the premises is going to extend beyond the boundaries of the site. That is a fact that is dismissed by many who oppose this, but it is factual.
John C: The city assured me that in the final EIS they had come to the conclusion that if there were an accident at the site it would be all contained within the fence line of the property which is roughly 500 feet. I found that hard to believe so I wanted to see the computer simulations that demonstrate that was the case. So I requested to the city for that information and I was the next day given a notification to show up in court because Puget Sound Energy had acquired an injunction to keep me from having that information.
Steve Storms: They said, no, we’re not going to do it because it’s a terrorist threat and the judge said that, you have to do it if you’re going to build it in the community.
Steve Storms is a retired energy and environmental engineer and a longtime resident of NE Tacoma.
Steve: PSE appealed it and said, even, if we wanted to, Homeland Security deems it a security threat for terrorists and we’re not going to do it. The judge ruled against them again.
John C: When we got the simulation results through that court case, what we found out was that they had not done any testing of potential catastrophes and so that’s why all simulations of accidents on the facility were always contained within the fence line.
Steve: They said, we did a safety model and it passed and everything is going to stay within the 550 foot property line. Well, what about the terrorist attack. Well, we didn’t deem that probability high enough so we didn’t do that. Well, you just told us you weren’t going to release it because of a terrorist. . .well hmmm.
Todd Hay: The final environmental impact statement was signed on November 9.
Todd Hay leads a data team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is president of Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma.
Todd: The fire department actually ran modeling on November 10 which showed if there were a blast at the site, how far out it would go from the site facility.
Claudia: I did a public records request with the city of Tacoma to see whether or not the fire department had done any analysis on the safety of this facility, and when I got the records it turned out that the fire department had done studies but none of that information had made it into the original environmental impact statement.
John C: The Tacoma Fire Department found that if it were just one of the pipelines that would break there would be a potential explosion that would go way beyond the fence line and that the gas could go as far as a mile from the site up into Northeast Tacoma.
Lou: I think the model that you’re talking about was a model that was a very rudimentary, tailgate sort of modeling system that responders use when they arrive at a site. It does not take into consideration a number of factors including topography. It was not germane and would not have been an approved modeling process for the EIS.
Nanette: We did our own models and we saw using the same equipment model that the Tacoma Fire Department has, that the blast zone went to I5 which is 3.2 miles from the facility. The Puyallup Tribe has done maps of the community to show the one and two and three mile blast zones and I’m in that. My home is in that and all of my friends and family and the Salish Sea are in that blast zone.
Annette Bryan: We call it the blast zone because we don’t know,
Annette Bryan is with the Puyallup Tribal Council and is an enrolled tribal member of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
Annette: because no one’s done an analysis.
Tarika: They claim that they are building a fence around the facility and this fence is going to contain any gases that could leak.
Claudia: Situated in the Port of Tacoma is an ICE Detention Facility where sixteen hundred people would be sitting ducks, as the fire department has no plans to evacuate those people in an emergency.
Nanette: They believe that LNG is a bridge fuel, that it’s a transition fuel to get off of dirty coal and diesel.
Claudia: It’s not going to be forever, we’ll only be doing this as a bridge to get from here to there. But they have a fifty year lease. Now another fifty years of burning a fossil fuel that’s actually worse than even coal or oil, it’s not a bridge from here to there, it’s a bridge to nowhere.
Eric: Twenty-five years ago, moving to gas arguably was an environmentally reasonable choice to make. And back then, almost all gas was extracted with conventional drilling techniques.
Nanette: But natural gas is not extracted in the way that it used to be. It’s using tons of chemicals, millions of gallons of water. It’s destroying water tables in communities, poisoning their water.
Lou: Someone once said that perfection is the enemy of the good and I think that applies here.
Lou Paulsen, with the Port of Tacoma
Lou: Fracking exists. It’s generating different fuel sources that industry can use. For our part we want to use the cleanest one.
Clare: If you look at the reality of LNG, even though it’s also a fossil fuel, but it is a cleaner one.
Clare Petrich, Tacoma Port commissioner
Clare: That’s one of the steps in the direction of moving away from fossil fuels.
Eric: If you had started using gas as a bridge fuel in the seventies or eighties and we had transitioned away from coal and oil then, okay, there’s an argument there. Transitioning away now by using gas simply means that we’re going to lock in fossil fuel use for the next thirty or forty or fifty years. We cannot afford that much time on fossil fuels. We have to transition to fully clean zero carbon energy. We have the technology to do that but the biggest impediment to renewable development is the abundance of cheap gas.
Lou: There’s not a panacea here. There’s no question that natural gas if released into the atmosphere has a significant greenhouse effect. It’s a choice of options and we see LNG as the preferred transitional fuel.
Sandra Steingraber: Where does the gas go after it comes out of the ground?
Sandra Steingraber is a writer, biologist and anti-fracking activist.
Sandra: Well, there is a massive amount of infrastructure involved to take that oil and gas from the point of its extraction to wherever the burner tip is. And that takes the form of pipelines and compressor stations and hundreds of underground and above ground gas and oil storage facilities and here in the Northwest, LNG facilities. Methane leaks at every step of this project from the moment the drill bit goes into the ground and contacts the shale, methane is pouring out of the hole. Methane is being loaded into the atmosphere 86% times more powerful than carbon dioxide at being able to trap heat in our atmosphere.
Kristin Ang: The Port considers itself the economic engine of Pierce County, and so whatever they believe is good for the Port is good for Tacoma.
Kristin Ang is a Tacoma lawyer who is running for a position on the Tacoma Port Commission.
Kristin: They never really once question what else could there be for this area.
Clare: Tacoma is industrialized and I think that has been much of the strength of Tacoma, and particularly in our ability to provide family-wage jobs to people.
Bill Kupinse: When you look at the number of jobs that are being projected for the LNG plant,
Bill Kupinse teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Puget Sound.
Bill: I think it’s something like eighteen fulltime jobs with no guarantee that they’re going to people who are from Tacoma.
Eric: I’ve spoken with the longshore workers in Tacoma on many occasions and they’ve said to me quite plainly that they would be opposed to an oil project because they get the dangers of it, but they’re more comfortable with liquified natural gas. They think they’re going to be some air quality benefits.
Clare: People who are longshoremen and are loading ship, they have difficulties with some of the fuel. Crane operators are also working over those stacks and so everybody who works in a port is concerned about making sure that we have cleaner air.
Claudia: TOTE actually already plugs into shore power so their ships are not burning diesel when they are at berth.
Eric: Even when they are under power, they are using a much cleaner fuel than they used to use and that’s true actually for a lot of marine vessel operators. It makes the relative benefit of using LNG much, much smaller and so it’s not nearly as big a deal as we were told at the outset of this project.
Annette: When you look at the amount of money that Puget Sound Energy spends on sending out information to the public, you see on your TV that this is cleaner fuel and you know that the air is getting worse and you want clean air for your kids, you’re going to support it. You see that over and over and over and you believe it, just like you hear a song on the radio over and over and over, you’re going to start singing it out loud.
TV Reporter: Two demonstrators who occupied the construction crane on Monday believe the land here belongs to the Puyallup Tribe. Puyallup Tribal Elder Ramona Bennett says she’s certain of it.
Ramona Bennett: I furnished them a reservation map and I showed them that’s our tidelands, it’s our estuary.
TV Reporter: But the city and Port of Tacoma have long said the land belongs to the city and that’s why it leased the property to Puget Sound Energy to build its liquified natural gas plant and giant holding tank. And that’s why police arrested Cynthia Linet and Marilyn Kimmerling at a demonstration last May for trespassing. But a municipal court jury this week acquitted those two, not guilty because of the testimony of Bennett.
Claudia: When anybody builds anything in Tacoma you have to have all your permits before you get to build.
Claudia Riedener, Redefine Tacoma
Claudia: Now with Puget Sound Energy, they don’t have all their permits and in particular they don’t have the air permit. The other permits that they do have are not valid until they have the air permit in place. But when you go down to the site, you can see that the entire tank is already built.
Ramona Bennett: I know for a fact if Claudia went to build a chicken house in her yard without a permit they’d be down on her in a flash.
Ramona Bennett is the former chairwoman of Puyallup Tribe of Indians and served on the council from 1968 to 1979.
Ramona: This Puget Sound Energy, whose owners don’t even live in America, they can build an eight million gallon storage unit with no permit, and they can get away with it.
Steve: We wanted them to put a stop work order on it and they tend to think that that’s not needed, that if after everything is done, that they can issue a monetary penalty.
Steve Storms, retired chemical engineer
Steve: And I’m sure that Puget Sound Energy thinks that’s just great because they can continue to build for a full year without a permit, and maybe get fined a million dollars and that’s the cost of doing business that will probably get passed on to the rate payers anyway.
Clare: I don’t believe that they have broken any laws on the permitting at all. What they have built has been according to what the permits are that they have been given.
Clare Petrich, Tacoma Port commissioner
Clare: And, yes, they are optimistic that they will get all the permits. Let’s put it that way.
Claudia: The Puyallup Tribe has filed stop work orders with a whole bunch of different agencies that are in charge. These agencies have not stepped forward to enforce any kind of a stop work order.
TV Reporter: Outside the PSE Headquarters in downtown Bellevue, where protesters are blocking the main entrance, they have put up what’s called a long house, it’s a traditional Native American house and they are protesting the liquid natural gas plant proposed in Tacoma which is currently under construction though it does not have the proper permits and they put up this structure to say, “hey, if you guys can build without proper permits, I guess we can too.”
Annette: Huxla Hale, Good Day, my name is Annette Bryan and I’m here from the Puyallup Tribal Council. The city of Tacoma and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency have failed to consult with Puyallup Tribe. They have allowed PSE to construct a liquified natural gas plant without the proper permits. Consultation with the Puyallup Tribe means you don’t build unless you consult and come to an agreement with the Tribe. Failure to properly consult with the Tribe is a violation of federal law.
James Rideout: Puget Sound Energy proceeded to develop this plant which is right in the heart of our reservation.
James Rideout is a Puyallup Tribal Council member with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Tacoma.
James: Our wonderful leaders in the past realized that there’s basically land that is untitled and we had the rights to those lands because they were our original river bed land basin.
Annette: Because my mom’s uncle and her cousin had documents relating to the titles and the deeds to these lands, the government had to enter into a settlement. Well, of course, everything’s already built up by then. You’ve got the railroads, you’ve got industry, so it would be a little hard to get them to get up and move, but they did acknowledge that, yeah, the Puyallup Tribes had claim to this and that’s why they had to do the Land Claims Settlement.
John McCarthy: I started on the port commission in 1983.
John McCarthy is a commissioner of the Port of Tacoma.
John M: and at that time the Port of Tacoma was involved with litigation with the Puyallup Tribe involving former riverbed lands of the Puyallup River and whether the Tribe had an ownership interest in those lands. A lot of the land that was owned by the Port was subject to a cloud of those claims.
Annette: My mom was a secretary on the committee and she was always going to these meetings. It was so important that she would leave my siblings and I at home. So I knew that this was a really, really big deal.
John M: The commission wanted to enter into negotiations with the Tribe and after five years of hard work by a lot of people we were able to reach an agreement which at the time was the largest land claim settlement of a native tribe in the lower forty-eight states.
James: I was told that it was, if you don’t negotiate we’re going to take your land. So they really thought that, you know, we better do what we can in this negotiation or we’re going to lose everything.
Annette: We got several pieces of property but they were all highly contaminated and so here we’re stuck with these parcels of land in a highly industrial area with over 20 superfund sites. We gave up jurisdiction to air quality regulations and water quality regulations on the tide flats and in any area that’s not in Tribal trust.
John M: We gave them the opportunity to be very successful and their tribal enterprises are extremely successful. They’ve been able to give benefits to each of their members on a monthly basis in a substantial amount, so it’s been a great benefit to the Tribe.
Annette: In the Land Claims Settlement we did give up rights to the lands that were there that we had originally held title to in exchange for some monetary promises that weren’t all realized. For them to say, you have this big chunk of land that’s a beautiful piece of property, now go out and make it work, is like telling the Native American on a horse, who’s nomadic, to stay on this allotment farmland and grow yourself some vegetables and sell them to take care of your family.
James: There was an estuary. You could see salmon staging there from the 11th Street Bridge, and it was all filled in. The salmon slowed down and all of our natural resources were just dwindling. Those are some of the changes that I immediately recognized from the settlement that wasn’t beneficial. We had may have sold you land but what gave you the right to fill this in?
Ramona Bennett: Forty years ago I had my little five-year-old son, Lichabasu, with me and I was driving across the flats—we’ve never called it the Port, it always was the flats. And he started crying and he said, I’ve never seen the cedar trees, I’ve never seen the deers and he could see what wasn’t there anymore. That’s all there is, you know, is what isn’t there anymore.
Annette: We have to develop a relationship with the Port of Tacoma, we have to develop a relationship with the city of Tacoma. Unless we do that, we’re not going to be able to have these hard conversations or be seated at the table. We’ll always be on the menu. We are a government, we’re a sovereign nation and we have to on a government-to-government level engage in conversations with these folks.
Claudia: It’s been an uphill battle because Puget Sound Energy have been funding just about every politician’s campaign.
Todd: The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which is responsible for issuing an air operating permit, determined that the final environmental impact statement didn’t include enough analysis for greenhouse gas emissions. It didn’t include all those emissions that would happen upstream from the plant or downstream from the plant itself.
Todd Hay, Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma
Todd: So we’re going to require that a supplemental EIS is done. And then you look at the company that they actually selected to do the SEIS, it’s the exact same company that did the FEIS. Does that instill a lot of confidence in the public that they’re really going to get a good answer here, or is this an answer that is already kind of politically baked.
The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement was released on October 8, 2018.
Todd: The SEIS purports that if they put the LNG plant in place that we’ll actually have reduced greenhouse gas emissions than the current status quo. I have been looking at it and a number of other local scientists have been really reviewing the details of the document and on a number of fronts there is just inaccuracies in the report. They’re using older scientific data. I was very surprised by just the number of fallacies, typos, misinformation in the document.
Terra Doyle Anna King [testifying at Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) Hearing on Tacoma LNG Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement]: My name is Terra Doyle Anna King. I’m a longtime Salmon Beach resident and a business owner. The recently released Draft SEIS confirmed my expectation that the use of LNG for the maritime sector would result in better air quality for those of us who live and work around here. Also expected but still frustrating is the refusal of local activists to embrace scientific study, not just the studies that they like and acknowledge but also recognize that in the spirit of making progress you cannot sacrifice the good for sake of the perfect.
Dr. Heather Price [PSCAA Hearing]: Hi, my name is Dr. Heather Price. I’m an atmospheric chemist and climate scientist from Seattle, Washington, and I was a climate scientist with a group at Harvard. The impact statement that was put together should be looking at the leakage rates. If you have methane leaking at anywhere between 2 and 3% it is as bad as coal for its global warming potential. Right now they’re using numbers coming out of B.C. of point 4. All the emissions data that I have used has been anywhere from about 1.9% leakage rate up to as high as 17% leakage rate.
Bradley Thompson [PSCAA Hearing]: My name is Bradley Thompson. I’m a registered nurse. I’m also a volunteer with 350 Tacoma. Mostly tonight I’d like to note that your draft SEIS was released on October 8, the same day that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its urgent wake up call. This report prepared by the world’s leading climate scientists says that we must cap the rising global temperature to just 1.5 degrees and this must happen much faster than previously recognized. It means that we’ve got to stop building new 50-year fossil fuel infrastructure starting like 20 years ago. It means that an environmental impact statement shouldn’t compare new fracked fossil gas infrastructure to a no action alternative but rather to a do something different please alternative.
In April the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement was released.
Claudia: At the beginning when there were thousands and thousands of comments for this SEIS, I was hopeful that this public agency would actually take those concerns into consideration.
Claudia Riedener, Redefine Tacoma
Claudia: But when we saw the final product we realized that they did not take any of our comments seriously. They were dismissive. Many of our questions weren’t answered and the final study is really no different from the draft study and the flaws remain, the doubts remain.
A month later Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who had launched his presidential campaign as a climate champion, finally changed his position on LNG and methanol.
Jay Inslee: Being committed now to one hundred percent clean electricity and signing a bill prohibiting fracking in Washington State, I cannot in good conscience support continue construction of the liquified natural gas plant in Tacoma or a methanol production facility in Kalama. I want to be clear that my stance on these projects does not change our state’s regulatory process. Our state agencies will comply with state and federal laws to ensure rigorous and objective review of projects.
Bill Kupinse: What I would have hoped that Governor Inslee would have said, is that I oppose any project that uses fracked gas.
Bill Kupinse, University of Puget Sound
Bill: Because the climate crisis we are in is so grave and it is happening so quickly that I will use all of the powers at my disposal as governor to stop it, period.
Claudia: What’s really important is that our community stands together to protect the thin green line and to build resiliency against the threat of climate chaos. But instead we’re still forced to fight against old fossil fuel infrastructure that is trying to sneak in.
Five months after Governor Inslee announced his opposition to the Kalama methanol refinery and Tacoma LNG, indigenous water protectors and their allies walked for four days, from the Tacoma LNG tank to the Washington State Capitol, 47 miles away, to call on Governor Jay Inslee to turn his words into action.
Dakota Case: We need more than just words Governor Inslee, we need you to stop this, we need executive orders saying to stop the Kalama methanol plant, to stop the Tacoma LNG facility, to stop the expansion of U.S. Oil.
Paul Che-oke-tan: Jay Inslee, we are stepping forward, the youth around the world are stepping forward. Will you step forward and say, my position, my job does not matter but the lives of my own children and their children matter!
Love this land like we do, Jay Inslee!