Divisive Tacoma LNG project wins approval from key state board, upsetting Puyallup Tribe

This October 2017 photograph shows the $310 million liquified natural gas plant Puget Sound Energy is constructing on the Tacoma Tideflats. Peter Haley, The News Tribune

Puget Sound Energy’s Liquefied Natural Gas plant on Tacoma’s Tideflats cleared another legal hurdle Friday in a state board ruling affirming the decisions behind its development, though with additional air monitoring.

In a lengthy findings of facts, conclusions of law and order on the consolidated appeals issued Friday, the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board wrote that it “affirms the permit and supplemental environmental impact statement, but remands to add a condition in the permit to install a continuous emission monitoring system to monitor SO2 (sulfer dioxide) and VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions from TLNG’s enclosed ground flare.”

The findings were published over two documents totaling more than 150 pages — one focused on the legal challenges against the SEPA and SEIS, and the other focused on the permit challenges.

According to the board, approximately 1,500 exhibits were filed, of which around 350 exhibits were admitted.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians as well as multiple environmental groups at the end of 2019 filed challenges against the facility with the state’s Pollution Control Hearings Board.

The appeals challenged the facility’s permit and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) supplemental environmental impact statement supporting the permit. The project’s opponents challenged the data used in determining levels of emissions, pollutants and the overall safety of the plant.

The tribe also challenged the project over what it cited as Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s failure to engage in formal government-to-government consultation.

PSCAA reviewed the notice of construction application for Puget Sound Energy’s LNG project, and on Dec. 10, 2019, determined the proposal met requirements for approval.

Advocates for a Cleaner Tacoma, the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, Washington Environment Council, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and Stand.Earth, an environmental organization, were the groups along with the Puyallup Tribe to challenge development of the site in front of the board.

The two sides faced off in a 10-day hearing in April. The challenges were consolidated into one appeal. Five days focused on the permitting, five days on the SEPA determination.

In a statement issued Friday evening, the tribe said: “We are pleased that the board required detailed monitoring of certain emissions, and our legal and technical teams are evaluating what that means for future operations.”

The tribe added: “However, we are profoundly disappointed the board upheld the remainder of the permit. We expect the decision will embolden companies that start projects that feed climate change and put vulnerable communities at risk.”

Steve Van Slyke, PSCAA’s director of compliance, told The News Tribune via email that the agency had no comment on the decision.

Andrew Padula, PSE media representative told The News Tribune in response to the decisions Monday: “We are glad to see the permit affirmed and are in the process of fully reviewing the ruling. The LNG facility is critical to ensuring we can serve our customers on the coldest days of the year when demand on the system is at its peak. It also plays a key role in creating one of the greenest shipping fleets on the West Coast, aligning with PSE’s Beyond Net Zero Carbon commitment as we ‘go beyond’ addressing our own carbon emissions to help other sectors like transportation, our state’s largest source of emissions.”

As for a target opening date, he added: “We are still in the process of commissioning the plant.”

The LNG facility would produce 250,000-500,000 gallons of LNG a day, stored in a 8 million-gallon tank on the Tideflats. It is set to provide about 900,000 gallons of LNG each week to TOTE Maritime for its two Alaska ships.

PSE has said the site also will help boost the reliability of the fuel supply for Western Washington, providing LNG for local customers during peak winter demand.

Local opponents to the project have remained vocal at public meetings and in protests, with hearings involving environmental reviews filling Tacoma venues.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson also at different times voiced opposition to the project, with Ferguson’s office filing an amicus brief to the board in opposition over what it determined as errors in PSCAA’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

In Tacoma, the political fallout over the initial approvals for the plant ultimately played a role in new city restrictions recently approved in fossil-fuel expansion at the Tideflats. At the same time, environmentalists contend the new rules do not go far enough, particularly with LNG.

Melissa Malott, executive director for Communities for a Healthy Bay, in a statement issued last week, noted that the package included a carve-out for the LNG plant, allowing infrastructure expansion.

“If PSE wants to build out their infrastructure to maximize their refinery operations, they are allowed to apply for those permits – other existing facilities in the Tideflats are prohibited from doing that,” according to the statement.

Erin Dilworth, policy and technical program manager for CHB, elaborated in a separate post:

“While the threat of more LNG coming to our community is real, we also know that the environmental review that was conducted for the LNG facility used outdated and in some cases false information, so it is likely a new Environmental Review would be needed.”

Dilworth predicted that a future review would not go PSE’s way.

“From Jordan Cove to Kalama, regulators have made clear that LNG facilities do not pass the test and will likely not get their permits.”

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.