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Sept. 20, 2020

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Columbia Riverkeeper asks judge to reject federal permits for Kalama methanol plant

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LONGVIEW — Columbia Riverkeeper and several other conservation groups last week asked a federal judge to reject multiple permits for a proposed $2 billion Kalama methanol plant.

The groups filed for summary judgment in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the permits in 2019. Riverkeeper alleges that the Trump administration illegally approved the permits because the Corps did not complete an adequate environmental review of the project.

“To evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions impacts caused by the Kalama Project, the Corps primarily relied on initial and draft supplemental state environmental reviews, despite the fact that a state adjudicatory board, state court, and the Washington Department of Ecology found these reviews inadequate. … By failing to produce a full (environmental impact statement), the Corps got it wrong,” Riverkeeper wrote in the brief.

The court case dates back to 2019, when the Corps first approved the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Acts permits for the plant. That approval followed a review process by the Corps’ regulatory office that included an opportunity for public comment.

Based on an environmental assessment, the Corps found that the methanol project would not have a significant impact on the environment, and it approved the permits April 19, 2019.

Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against the decision Nov. 12, 2019, on the basis of an inadequate environmental assessment.

“The Corps considered less than half of the estimated greenhouse gas emissions caused by the project in its environmental review — the one million tons each year that will come directly from the refining process in Washington State,” Riverkeeper wrote.

According to Riverkeeper, the Corps did not consider emissions from increased natural gas production and transportation, shipping methanol to China, the use of methanol for fuel and the production of olefin (a type of petrochemical that can be used to make plastic.) Also, the Corps should have completed a full environmental impact statement, but it “ignored many of the project’s impacts” to use a “truncated” environmental assessment instead, Riverkeeper wrote.

Northwest Innovation Works wants to build the methanol plant at the Port of Kalama to convert natural gas to methanol to be shipped to China to make plastic. The company says the plant would create about 200 permanent jobs, generate millions in local property and sales taxes and train a new generation of workers.

An environmental analysis by the port and Cowlitz County said the plant would result in a reduction of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions by offsetting coal-based methanol production in China. Environmentalists — Riverkeeper included — say those estimates are based on “unsubstantiated” theories.

The project, which was first proposed in 2014, also is stalled at the state level so the Department of Ecology can complete its own environmental impact study. Ecology rejected earlier studies from the port and county, citing an insufficient analysis.

The Corps has until Sept. 25 to respond to the motion for a summary judgement. Corps spokesman Tom Conning said the Portland District does not comment on ongoing litigation.

“We remain fully committed to protecting and maintaining our aquatic resources and to protecting the navigable capacity of our Nation’s waters through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions,” Conning said.

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