Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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State review of Kalama methanol plant may progress without second study


LONGVIEW — Signaling a potential “change in attitude,” the state Department of Ecology may back off its demand for second study of the potential climate change impact of the proposed $2 billion Kalama methanol plant, according to area legislators.

“We believe (Ecology) can complete a thorough and effective evaluation of the project and come to a timely permit decision without resorting to a second” study of the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a March 12 letter from the legislators to the Cowlitz County commissioners and Port of Kalama. (See copy of the letter attached to this story on TDN.com.)

Ecology indicated a willingness to help modify a county/port greenhouse study that the agency found “insufficient,” according to the letter. In November, Ecology announced it would do its own, a process it said could take a year.

Legislators representing the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th districts met with Ecology during the recent legislative session about its second study requirement. On Tuesday, some of those lawmakers said Ecology has made no commitments, but they are hoping the project will move forward.

Ecology has been committed to doing this environmental review as quickly as possible, said Jeff Zenk, Ecology spokesman.

“We are open to exploring how we might be able to work with Cowlitz County and the applicants to share in the workload of providing the additional analysis that we require for this project,” he said in a statement. “We have had some initial discussions to see if that is feasible.”

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said the March 12 letter asks the county to reach out to Ecology and formally request clarification on what the agency found wrong with the county/port greenhouse gas study. Walsh said he’s optimistic the county and Ecology can remedy the existing study.

Generating a new analysis would involve a “significant amount” of taxpayer money and Ecology staff time, Walsh said.

“Leaving aside local politics, I think that’s not a great use of taxpayer resources,” Walsh said. “NWIW (Northwest Innovation Works) paid for the existing EIS. It seems to me a better bang for the taxpayer’s buck is to remedy the shortcomings Ecology sees in that rather than to start the process all over again, funded by taxpayers.”

Ecology requested $600,000 for the study, but that money was not included in the budget the Legislature approved earlier this month, said state Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview.

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 county/port analysis 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 scoff at that scenario and say it is based on old assumptions.

Cowlitz County is the review agency for the methanol project and has twice approved a shorelines permit for the project. Ecology now has to either affirm that decision, reject it or approve it with conditions, but Ecology officials say they can’t make a decision without sufficient analysis.

According to the legislator’s March 12 letter, Ecology officials indicated to lawmakers they would be willing to work with the port and county to address their concerns about the existing study.

Elaine Placido, county community services director, said Tuesday she is “happy to expand the collaborative effort with the port and the Department of Ecology.”

Dan Serres, Columbia River conservation director, said Ecology has been willing to help the county and port correct errors in the analysis, but the agencies have “consistently refused to do the scientifically sound environmental review necessary.”

The county/port analysis misrepresents the purpose and impact of the facility, Serres said, and doesn’t consider the potential burning of the methanol as fuel or the climate changing pollution associated with all aspects of the project. (Northwest Innovation rejects the contention that it will sell the methanol as fuel.)

“We will continue to support the State of Washington in holding this company accountable despite the company’s attempts to mislead the community and regulators,” he said.

Sen. Takko said he’s frustrated that it has taken so long to review the project, which first was proposed in 2014.

“This thing has been handled poorly to take this much time,” he said.

The plant would create about 200 permanent jobs, generate millions in local property and sales taxes and train a new generation of workers, according to Northwest Innovation Works.

“We believe this project represents a defining opportunity for rural economic development in Washington State,” says the March 12 letter, signed by state Reps. Walsh, Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama), Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen), Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), Brandon Vick (R-Vancouver) Larry Hoff (R-Vancouver) and state Sens. Takko and John Braun, R-Centralia.