PSE's gas plant studies have ‘significant technical issues,' Puyallup tribe's experts allege

PSE's gas plant studies have ‘significant technical issues,' Puyallup tribe's experts allege

The Puget Sound Energy liquified natural gas plant on Tacoma's Tideflats. Photo: Adam Lynn/The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. — The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has asked Tacoma to re-examine whether a Tideflats liquified natural gas plant — now under construction — is really safe.

The tribe is armed with two reviews of Puget Sound Energy’s own safety studies: one from a U.S. Department of Energy-funded research facility and another from a 30-year veteran of the field.

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Together, the reports say the city’s environmental analysis, informed partly by PSE-funded studies, is not thorough enough and does not consider a worst-case scenario — a catastrophic blast called a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.

“My hope is the city of Tacoma will do the right thing” and require a supplemental analysis of the PSE plant’s impact, said tribal Councilwoman Annette Bryan.

“This isn’t a philosophical belief we have,” she said. “It is a technically valid concern about the potential impacts to the project that haven’t been fully analyzed.”

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The tribe contends the reviews present enough evidence to require the city to reopen its examination into PSE’s 8 million gallon LNG plant and craft what’s called a supplemental environmental impact statement to address the new concerns.

Deputy City Attorney Steve Victor said Tacoma is considering hiring a consultant to review the tribe’s request and reports to see whether they include new information that the city’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS) doesn’t address.

Many people have contacted the city in recent months to demand a closer look at various aspects of the project, Victor said.

“Information that says the current FEIS is inadequate — however detailed or however passionate — doesn’t meet the legal standard” to reopen the document, he said. Completely new information would, he said.

In response to inquiries from The News Tribune, PSE spokesman Grant Ringel said, “The permitting process for the LNG facility has been extremely thorough and all local, state and federal standards have been followed.”

The tribe says the two reviews it submitted to Tacoma contest whether plans for the plant were accurately studied, and are enough to force the city to re-examine part of the 2015 study that allowed the plant to move forward.

For one review, Sandia National Laboratories checked the PSE studies for the tribe under a program where federal agencies give Native American tribes access to technical assistance for energy-related projects.

Sandia Labs says that despite the amount of high pressure piping at the plant, “no mention is made regarding a credible scenario” involving damage or failure of those pipes or pressurized storage tanks when exposed to fire that could create a dangerous, rapidly expanding explosion.

PSE’s reports also don’t consider shrapnel that might be propelled by such an explosion, the Sandia Labs report says.

Its researchers cite two examples as proof: A 2014 blast at an LNG facility in Plymouth, and another in Algeria in 2004 when 30 people were killed and 70 others hurt.

Both explosions originated from the plants’ processing equipment lines, the report says.

In Plymouth, people in houses “several miles away” felt the explosion, and a 250-pound piece of steel was hurled more than 900 feet. Shrapnel pierced the plant’s large tank and, the authors surmise, damaged railroad tracks about 1,000 feet away.

“The potential hazards associated with these events should be specifically considered and evaluated,” the Sandia Labs report says. “These events will present a different set of hazards to both homes and the public offsite, and could cause damage to additional pressure vessels or LNG storage tanks.”

The second review — written by Ranajit Sahu, a consultant with decades of experience — says the city’s findings are flawed in several ways because they rely on PSE’s studies, which have “significant technical issues” … “which render its conclusions suspect and therefore unreliable.”

The studies, Sahu said, dismiss the likelihood of an explosion, use weather data from Joint Base Lewis-McChord instead of Tacoma, and do not consider an alternative to using non-flammable refrigerants to cool the methane to the appropriate temperature.

Tacoma’s final environmental impact statement for the project was completed in late 2015 and no one appealed the findings, Victor said.

For nearly a year after the city approved the impact statement, PSE’s safety studies remained secret. The utility sued three records requesters, including The News Tribune, to keep them that way.

The News Tribune independently acquired copies of the studies, but by then the city's environmental review had been completed for months.

Back then, the public generally was not aware of the project, let alone its scope, said Bryan, the tribal councilwoman.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which issues air quality permits for projects like this, is taking another look at the plant's greenhouse gas effects in its own supplemental EIS.

The agency will look at all greenhouse gas emissions the plant will produce, from when the gas is extracted in Canada to when it is burned off as marine or home fuel.

The agency will hear and respond to public comments about the draft supplemental EIS later this year, and decide whether to approve the air permit by early 2019, said director of compliance Steve Van Slyke.

Natural gas is mostly methane, and is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimated earlier this year that about 2.3 percent of all natural gas production in the United States seeps through leaks in pipes.

For now, PSE continues to build parts of the LNG plant that do not require an air permit, Ringel said. The agency expects to open the plant in 2020, instead of 2019 as it had planned, he said.

Victor said even that if a supplemental EIS is approved, that doesn’t mean construction will immediately halt.

“Regardless of popularity, PSE has legal rights in this as well,” he said. “And they have a right to rely on the laws that exist. We cannot consider an SEIS until we are absolutely convinced we have information meeting the legal standard.”