science environment

Will Methanol Be The New Aroma Of Tacoma?

By Ashley Ahearn (KUOW/EarthFix)
Tacoma, Washington Feb. 18, 2016 7:45 p.m.
A proposed methanol plant would bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Tacoma, but it faces strong opposition.

A proposed methanol plant would bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Tacoma, but it faces strong opposition.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW / EarthFix

UPDATE: On Friday the company behind Tacoma's proposed methanol plant announced it was temporarily putting its proposal on hold, saying it has been "surprised by the tone and substance of vocal opposition." Click here for details.

It wasn’t long ago that Tacoma was known for its distinctive industrial smell, the so-called “aroma of Tacoma.” But in recent years, as more young people move to the city, the arts and cultural scene has flourished, some say eclipsing the city’s industrial past.

Now, a controversial proposal to build the the world’s largest methanol production facility at the Port of Tacoma, has become a lightning rod for a city at a crossroads. Proponents say it will bring tax revenue and more blue-collar jobs to a city that has seen that sector shrink in recent years. And they say the plant is better for the environment than current methanol operations elsewhere in the world because it would emit less carbon.

Opponents worry that the sheer size of the facility and its large energy and water demands are not the best use of public resources. They say its emissions pose a risk to public health and the environment and worry about what it means for nearby property values.

Real estate agent Julia Galleher. She says a lot of Tacomans love the industrial appeal of the bustling port, but the new methanol plant will make the city a “dumping ground.”

Real estate agent Julia Galleher. She says a lot of Tacomans love the industrial appeal of the bustling port, but the new methanol plant will make the city a “dumping ground.”

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix

Real estate agent Julia Galleher, who has sold houses in Tacoma for 30 years, says Tacomans love the industrial appeal of the bustling port city, but that the new methanol plant will make the city a “dumping ground” -- again.

“After all the cleanup we’ve done… to bring Tacoma back up and alive, Galleher said. "To have something like this come in and set us back 30-40 years, that’s ridiculous."

An International Boom With International Demand

Northwest Innovation Works, a newly-formed company backed by a Hong Kong investment firm and the Chinese Academy of Sciences Holdings Co., wants to build three methanol plants in the Northwest. The largest would be in Tacoma with two smaller facilities on the Columbia River in Kalama, Washington, and Clatskanie, Oregon. The combined methanol output from the facilities would triple current U.S. production, which has rapidly increased in recent years.

The site of the proposed methanol refinery at the Port of Tacoma.

The site of the proposed methanol refinery at the Port of Tacoma.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix

Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is in demand, globally, for use in plastics, explosives, paints, solvents, antifreeze and other chemicals.

China is the world’s largest consumer of methanol. It’s also a big methanol producer. But its process emits a lot of greenhouse gases because it relies on gasified coal. Not only would the Tacoma plant use cleaner-burning natural gas instead, it also would get most of its power from a carbon-free resource: hydroelectricity from Tacoma Public Utilities.

“It’s a manufacturing process that is considerably better for the environment than coal-based production of methanol,"  said Mandy Putney, spokesperson for Northwest Innovation Works.   "That supports global efforts right now to address climate change and Tacoma could be part of that process.”

Stretching Power and Water Supply

As the largest methanol plant in the world, the Tacoma facility’s electricity and water demands would dwarf other industrial customers in the area.

“We are not in the position we wanted to be in,” said Bob Mack, deputy director of public affairs for Tacoma Public Utilities.

The utility company is on the hook to supply electricity and water for the plant. Mack says his company  has received many emails and calls from the public asking it to take a side, which it can’t do.  Mack says there’s more research to be done but he did provide some hard numbers about how the needs of the plant stack up with current water and electricity availability.

Tacoma Methanol Plant's Projected Water and Electricity Use

Water use
In gallons per day

Electricity use
In megawatts


Source: Tacoma Public Utilities

The plant’s projected water consumption would be 20 percent of the total use by all Tacoma Public Utilities customers, which include Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the cities of Tacoma, Lakewood, Federal Way and Kent.

“It would be the largest power consumer in our service area and if not the largest water consumer, maybe the largest [single] water consumer,” Mack said.

He said Tacoma Public Utilities has an abundant supply of municipal water to serve the plant and existing customers in normal years.

But 2015 was the hottest year on record worldwide and climate models project less snow and more  rain in the Northwest in coming years, which means less snowpack runoff  for hydropower generation.

The utility’s current electricity supply isn’t big enough to meet the added demands of the methanol plant, Mack said.

Tacoma Public Utilities would have to bring in power from elsewhere on the grid. Mack said it was too early in the review process to know exactly where the extra power could come from or how ratepayers will be protected from increasing costs.

Proud Blue-Collar History

The Tacoma methanol plant would create 1,000 initial construction jobs and 260 permanent jobs. The planned 100-acre facility could generate more than $6 million a year in lease payments to the Port (although that figure is a preliminary estimate). Then there are the tax revenues the plant would spur. All those numbers will become clear environmental review process, expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she has questions about the facility but she’s interested in the job-creation figures.

“We have a very proud, rich blue collar history and I think for some people there’s the idea that Tacoma should be a city that has just the arts, just coffee shops and restaurants,” she said. “But if we are truly a diverse city then our economy has to accommodate all kinds of work.&rdqu

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland in 2016.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland in 2016.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix

Strickland said finding tenants for its property is the Port of Tacoma’s job, not the city’s. She said the methanol plant has presented “an opportunity to take a more comprehensive view of what’s possible at the port” – not unlike what the Shell Oil drilling rig did to draw attention to the Port of Seattle and its decision to host it.

Strickland has not taken a position supporting or opposing the proposed methanol plant, but said that there are important questions to be answered during the environmental review of the project.

The Port of Tacoma is very much in support of the proposed plant.

“It has enormous economic benefit for this community,” said Port Commissioner Connie Bacon, who has been in office for 19 years. “What we’re getting is a lot of emotion without facts,” she said, urging patience from the public for the completion of the environmental review.

“We build things here; at least we try to,” she said.

‘Citizens Exposed’

Methanol is flammable in liquid and gas states and considered highly toxic to humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is most dangerous when ingested but “inhalation of high concentrations of methanol vapor and absorption of methanol through the skin are as effective as the oral route in producing toxic effects,” according to the CDC website. Methanol is often described as biodegradable because it breaks down quickly in the environment.

Public meeting: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m. at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center ballroom. Doors will open at 5 p.m. for speaker sign-up. 

The methanol production process releases toxic air pollution, according to permits for a methanol plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The Yuhuang Chemical methanol plant is located in so-called "cancer alley," an industrial hot spot along the Mississippi River. It was permitted to emit pollutants that include benzene, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds and particulates that have been linked with lung problems. Benzene and formaldehyde are both known human carcinogens linked to leukemia and lung, eye and throat irritation. Formaldehyde has been linked with fetal damage and fertility problems.

Proximity to a methanol plant "translates into citizens being exposed to these chemicals by inhalation, ingestion and skin contact," said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based environmental scientist who has studied community health impacts of the methanol plants in her state. Environmental groups have hired Subra as a consultant to their campaign against the proposed plant in Tacoma.

It is unclear at what levels the proposed methanol plant in Tacoma could release these pollutants as that information has not yet been shared with the agencies overseeing the environmental review of the facility.

'An Abomination'

At a recent public meeting on the proposed project held by the City of Tacoma, most of the 1,000 or so people in attendance strongly opposed the project. A petition was circulated calling for Bacon, the commission's most vocal methanol plant supporter, to resign.

Others who took the microphone asked for more information about human health impacts, earthquake risk and gas leaks, as well as the plant's large water and electricity demands. They also raised concerns about effects on property values in the surrounding area.

A recent study from Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley found property value decreases of up to 11 percent after an industrial plant opens, relative to the period before the plant was constructed.

"Real estate agents and lenders are gonna be the first ones that understand the impacts that take place," said Galleher, the real estate agent opposed to the plant.

Ron Richardson, a retired executive with the Hotel Workers International Union, warned that the methanol plant will drive visitors and potential newcomers away.

“Forget about hotels. Forget about tourism. Forget about the reputation of our town because it’s gonna be nothing,” he said. “No one’s gonna want to come here at all. We’ll be known as a dangerous industrial town that doesn’t give a damn about downtown, tourism or its residents.&rdqu

The crowd at  public meeting in Tacoma rises when asked to stand if they oppose the proposed methanol refinery.

The crowd at public meeting in Tacoma rises when asked to stand if they oppose the proposed methanol refinery.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix

He then turned to the crowd and asked:

“Would everyone here who’s against this abomination please stand up and let them see you?”

The crowd stood.

The next chance for the public to comment or raise questions about the proposed methanol plant will be next Wednesday at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.