The Puyallup Tribe and local allies are fighting the construction of a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project at the Port of Tacoma. Representatives of the Puyallup Tribe say the project has proceeded without adequate consultation, and have objections ranging from clean water concerns over construction at a contaminated site, to safety fears given a recent rash of gas explosions throughout Washington State.
The proposed Tacoma LNG project, owned by Puget Sound Energy, would liquefy and store natural gas in an eight-million-gallon tank at the Port of Tacoma, where it can fuel ships traveling to Alaska, be transferred to heavy-haul trucks for sale on the regional market, and be re-gassified for local utility customers if such demand appears in the future. Opposition to the project has been strong, prompting civil actions, protests and even a political career or two.
“All the precautions can be there, but sometimes there’s human error, sometimes mechanical failure, so for us we’re very concerned about life, safety, and about protection of the habitat,” said Puyallup tribal councilor David Bean. “I-5 is a major corridor north and south. If you had a mechanical failure, the freeway’s in the blast zone. It would devastate our local economy.”
Safety concerns have been reinforced by several recent incidents across the state. In March 2014 an explosion at a Plymouth, Washington LNG facility injured five people and was felt six miles away, prompting a complete evacuation within a two-mile radius. In March 2016 another gas explosion in Seattle injured nine firefighters and damaged dozens of businesses. One badly injured firefighter is currently suing the company.
In the wake of the Seattle explosion, Puget Sound Energy was fined $1.5 million by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commissions for violating numerous safety regulations. Another $1.25 million in fines could be levied if the company does not aggressively inspect and remediate thousands of retired service lines across the state. Puget Sound Energy deemed the fines “disappointing and excessive,” according to a statement released at the time.
“Safety is this company’s number one priority, and that’s both for our customers and our employees,” Puget Sound Energy spokesperson Grant Ringel told Indian Country Media Network. He added that the Seattle explosion had occurred after a contractor mistakenly removed an abandoned water line matching the description of an outside gas line.
In an August 2015 letter to the City of Tacoma, Puyallup tribal Chairman Bill Sterud objected to the potential dangers of Puget Sound Energy’s storing and shipping LNG so close to an urban population. He expressed particular concern with doing so along the Cascadia fault on land that surveys have shown would be particularly unstable during an earthquake. The fault is currently overdue for an extremely powerful “megathrust” earthquake, as The New Yorker reported in 2015.
Sterud’s letter also cited a 2004 study from Sandia National Laboratory—a division of the U.S. Department of Energy—describing how an LNG fire from a leaking storage container could conceivably melt steel up to 1,200 feet away and cause second-degree burns on exposed skin a mile away. Sterud observed that LNG fires could easily set off secondary fires at the port—a cumulative risk not considered in the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the city.
The City of Tacoma responded to these concerns in its Final Environmental Impact Statement, writing that risks at the port “are standalone risks” and “do not have any bearing on other such facilities in the area.” The city also wrote that the base of the LNG tank was designed “to absorb potential seismic events.”
City-funded studies of the facility, however, have not addressed “a blasting scenario for accidental release of gas or LNG,” as such studies are not required by federal law, according to the city’s evaluation. Tacoma city planner Shirley Shultz redirected safety questions to the fire department. Joe Meinecke, public information officer with the Tacoma Fire Department, said the department could not comment on public concerns until after review of the facility’s fire and life safety permits is completed later this year.
The city plans to reopen a nearby fire station if the PSE facility is built. Puget Sound Energy has repeatedly litigated to fight the release of safety studies done on the project, according to The News Tribune of Tacoma.
Although the project lies within the Usual and Accustomed areas of the Puyallup, Councilor David Bean said the tribal government was told about the project very late in the game.
“What’s particularly disturbing is that the Port of Tacoma was a party to the Land Claims Settlement Agreement,” Bean said. “In fact we had numerous meetings between our Tribal Council and the Port Commission. And during those meetings not once did they mention the development. They’ve definitely failed to honor their commitment and consult the tribes.”
The Port of Tacoma has not commented on those allegations.
The Puyallup are challenging the project on a number of fronts and in April won the right to test sediments near construction to ensure that Puget Sound Energy is complying with water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.
The Puyallup have also raised concerns about construction along the highly polluted Hylebos waterway—an area the tribe has made considerable effort to clean up, along with the rest of Commencement Bay, a Superfund site since 1981. By way of response, the city issued the permit but required the company to prove it wouldn’t harm water quality in the Hylebos before construction could begin. Puget Sound Energy subsequently dropped all construction in the Hylebos.
Nevertheless, the Puyallup Tribe challenged the permit on the grounds that dropping this construction changed the project enough to invalidate the permit. The tribe also said that potential harm to fish habitat had not been adequately studied. The Shoreline Hearings Board ruled against the tribe and upheld the permit. The tribe is appealing in Thurston County Superior Court, with a hearing scheduled for October 25.