Tarika Powell: Tacoma and Environmental Justice in the Northwest

By Kylie Gurewitz

On Feb. 8, Tarika Powell came to the University to give a lecture titled “Tacoma and Environmental Justice in the Northwest.” Powell is a graduate of Vanderbilt law school and a researcher for Sightline Institute, a non-profit think tank that publishes research with the goal of improving sustainability throughout the Pacific Northwest. Powell’s talk focused on the threats against sustainability in the PNW, specifically the push to make the region a “surrogate” for the production of overseas energy, and how this effort has manifested in the new Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility in Tacoma.

Powell began the talk explaining the issues of the “thin green line.” This term is used to denote the role played by Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in the energy markets, one of the major threats to sustainability in the PNW. “In the past 10 years the fossil fuel industry has tried to make the Pacific Northwest the gateway to overseas fossil fuel markets,” Powell said. The geography of the PNW makes it the most economically beneficial place for energy corporations to set up facilities which would transport resources from landlocked states to Asian markets.

This would mean that although these resources are not coming from the PNW, the region would take on the environmental impact of refining and shipping them. “We face the prospect of taking on the risks of pollution and transportation, without receiving very many of the benefits,” Powell said. Powell explained that while the industries seeking to build these facilities think of the PNW as a “surrogate,” Sightline envisions the region’s capability as a “gatekeeper.” These projects are contingent upon the permission of the governments in the PNW, leaving the citizens and governments of the “thin green line” to take on the role of reviewing the environmental impacts of these facilities.

But  Powell feels these reviews are often less than satisfactory; one example of which is the review that approved the construction of an LNG facility in the Port of Tacoma. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) was created to review the environmental impact of such projects on the community; however, Powell called the SEPA review of the Tacoma LNG facility “the worst SEPA review I have ever seen.”

This facility could have enormous consequences on Tacoma communities in many ways. Apart from the direct environmental impact, this facility will require repaving of the roads surrounding it to bring them up to heavy-haul standards as well as reopening of the fire station near the tideflats. These projects will need government funding, which will come from the taxpayers of Tacoma.

Additionally, this project will affect the Puyallup tribe, a frontline community for environmental injustice. Powell explained that these frontline communities are often low-income neighborhoods, people of color and indigenous people. These groups are targeted by corporations aiming to build these facilities because it is known that they have less resources to attempt to block these projects.

“When we are talking about environmental injustice, we are talking about the way that environmental harms affect some communities much more than other communities,” Powell said. The Puyallup tribe represents a frontline community that will be more affected than other communities in Tacoma. The Seattle Times reported Puyallup Tribal Council member Annette Bryan’s statement that “The tribe was not meaningfully consulted about the project … which the tribe opposes as a threat to its lands, waters and people.” In December 2017, over 200 people showed up to a protest led by the Puyallup people against the LNG facility.

Another group that will be affected by this facility is the 1,500 detained people at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). The LNG facility will be at the Port of Tacoma, not far from the NWDC, which is already surrounded by other dangerous fossil fuel refineries. Professor Bill Kupinse, who worked to bring Powell to campus for this lecture, stated, “If there’s ever an accident at one of those fossil fuel refineries, the plan is for detainees to ‘shelter in place,’ which puts their lives at risk.” Along with the Puyallup tribe, these detainees are unwillingly on the frontlines of this injustice, and have no say whatsoever in the approval of this project.

All of this information can feel overwhelming and hopeless, but the thin green line does not have to be a surrogate — it can be a gatekeeper like Powell hopes. “Like all of us who live in Tacoma, UPS students are in a strategic position to help stop these projects,” Kupinse said. He listed organizations such as Tacoma Direct Action, and RedefineTacoma, with which students can become involved in order to fight environmental injustice. Researching the facts behind these projects, utilizing organizations such as Sightline, fighting for frontline communities and joining with environmental justice organizations are the main ways that citizens will be able to hold environmental review committees accountable.

From the extended question and answer section of Tarika Powell’s talk, it became clear that Tacoma is home to citizens who are engaged and concerned about the future of environmental justice in their community, especially the LNG facility. If these citizens can inform more people and spread the message to fight against environmental injustice, maybe Tacoma’ small portion of the thin green line can set precedent as a gatekeeper.


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