By Grace Piccard
For the past three years, a quiet battle has been raging over a stretch of land known as the Tacoma tideflats. Once pastoral wetland, the heavily-industrialized area is now home to the Port of Tacoma, various railroad facilities, and a for-profit immigration detention center.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE), an energy and natural gas utility, has proposed the construction of a massive liquid natural gas (LNG) plant that would produce, store, anddistribute liquid fossil fuels. The eighteen-story plant would be among the first of its kind in the United States, offering on-site LNG liquefaction and storage of natural gases fracked from the Rocky Mountains and Canada. It would also necessitate the construction of five miles of new pipeline through the City of Fife.
Puget Sound Energy has repeatedly extolled the many benefits — largely financial — of such an operation here in Tacoma, but environmental activists refute those claims. RedLine Tacoma, a group of activists who fiercely oppose the plant’s construction, insist that the dangers far outweigh the potential advantages. An accident at the plant could have “catastrophic effects” and cause serious bodily harm to those who inhabit nearby neighborhoods, as well as those currently imprisoned at the Tideflats detention center.
In 2016, RedLine activist John Carlton filed a public information request that would force PSE to reveal potential safety risks involved in the operation of the LNG plant. PSE representatives quickly filed an injunction intended to prevent public disclosure, suggesting that the company is not only aware of the risks but is also willing to go to any lengths to suppress them.
Puget Sound Energy has fought to keep the construction process shrouded in mystery. The City of Tacoma published the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement in November of 2015. The report contains what appears to be intentionally vague language, and remains unclear on important topics such as the identities of the ‘third party industry merchants’ that the LNG plant would supply with natural gas and the strain that the plant would put on the region’s resources. PSE also denied that LNG vapors and thermal radiation would extend beyond the boundaries of the plant, despite evidence that such vapors and radiation are impossible to confine with mere fences. They have successfully exploited environmental loopholes that only exist because the phenomenon of LNG plants is so new that policies concerning them have not yet been written.
Pushback by activists, particularly from the Puyallup tribe and from RedLine Tacoma, has forced PSE to revise the estimated date of completion for the plant to 2019. In the wake of Donald Trump’s greenlighting of the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, activists continue to wage war against energy conglomerates with a passionperhaps even fiercer than before. How Tacoma’s government –– and people –– handle Puget Sound Energy’s dangerous proposal will define how similar projects are approached in the future, and will certainly be an incredibly consequential moment in Washington’s environmental history.