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Jan. 24, 2021

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Supporters disappointed, not deterred by ruling tossing Kalama methanol plant’s federal permits

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LONGVIEW — While local officials and proponents of the proposed Kalama methanol plant said a Monday federal court ruling throwing out the project’s federal permits is not ideal, they’re confident the project will prevail through further environmental review.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan vacated the federal permits required for the methanol plant, sending the proposed project back to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for a new environmental review, including reassessing public interest.

“The more (the project) has been studied, the more it’s shown to be beneficial, not only economically but environmentally,” said Ted Sprague, Cowlitz Economic Development Council president.

“Another delay is disappointing, but I think the Corps will come to the same conclusion that it will be beneficial,” he added.

Multiple conservation groups that filed the lawsuit last year and opponents of the plant applauded the decision.

“These dirty fossil fuel monstrosities only accelerate climate change, and we can’t continue to allow companies to pretend otherwise,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re relieved the court rejected the permits for the project, but rather than send it back to the drawing board, state and federal leaders should pull the plug now.”

The Corps is currently reviewing its options regarding the ruling, spokesman Tom Conning said in a statement.

“We are fully committed to protecting and maintaining the navigable capacity of our nation’s waters and to protecting our aquatic resources through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions,” Conning said. “We base those decisions on thorough evaluations of the most current, accurate and relevant information about the impacts to the public interest of the elements of the proposed project.”

It’s unclear how long it may take the Corps to complete an environmental impact statement for the project, but the state Department of Ecology’s supplemental study of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions has been underway for almost a year.

Northwest Innovation Works wants to build the plant on land leased from the Port of Kalama. The proposed plant, employing up to 200 people, would convert natural gas into methanol for use in plastics manufacturing in China.

In September, the state Department of Ecology released the draft supplemental study, which found that environmental benefits from the proposed plant would be substantially lower than an earlier environmental study concluded. The draft also determined that the nearly 1.1 million tons of in-state greenhouse gas emissions by the Northwest Innovation Works’ project can be mitigated by environmentally friendly projects.

“That study takes an unprecedented and expansive look at the greenhouse gas impacts here in Washington state and globally, and it estimates that (Northwest Innovation Works’) Kalama facility will result in a global net reduction of over 6 million metric tonnes of (greenhouse gases) every year,” said Kent Caputo, general counsel for Northwest Innovation Works. “We expect that work to be completed shortly, and it will stand as a rigorous, comprehensive, independent analysis that will inform any additional efforts ultimately performed by the Corps.”

Washington District 20th Rep. Ed Orcutt, who is from Kalama, said he is disappointed in the ruling, especially when data shows the project would overall reduce global carbon emissions.

“Thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars spent to see permits rejected sends a message that Washington is closed for business,” he said in an email response to The Daily News. “Courts and regulators need to allow Washington to reopen for new employers and expansion of existing employers, especially when they have proven an overall reduction in global carbon will be achieved.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said Tuesday the county board supports the construction of the methanol plant “in the prescribed manner allowed by law.”

“Of course, it is hard when regulators keep changing the goalposts,” he said in an email. “However, I believe the state is close to accepting the best available research on the plant’s expected global impact and with that, the (Corps) can amend their impact statement to comply with the judge’s request. It would be nice to have the ground-breaking for the next construction season.”

The Port of Kalama said in a statement it is reviewing the decision and remains committed to the project.

“Once built, this project will protect the environment, bring great jobs to the state and generate much needed revenue for roads, schools, fire services and infrastructure,” said Mark Wilson, port executive director.

Mike Bridges, president of the Longview/Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council, said the decision is frustrating because the project has already been under review for nearly seven years. Despite the added process, Bridges said he’s “highly confident” the project will be built.

“(Northwest Innovation Works), the Port of Kalama, and the Building Trades are fully committed to seeing this through,” he said. “The science is on the side of doing this. The local jobs and tax revenue created by this project are real and meaningful for our community. (Northwest Innovation Works) didn’t lose on any issue of substance yesterday.”

Judge: Corps didn’t consider emissions

The Washington Environmental Council, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Columbia Riverkeeper first brought the legal challenge to the federal court for the Western District of Washington in November 2019. The groups are represented by nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.

In August, the groups filed for summary judgement in the lawsuit, which challenges the Corps’s April 2019 approval of the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act permits for the proposed methanol plant.

Based on an environmental assessment, the Corps found the project would not have a significant impact on the environment, and it approved the permits. The agency did not perform a more comprehensive environmental impact statement.

According to Monday’s ruling, the National Environmental Policy Act requires agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement for actions that will “significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

The judge granted the conservations groups’ claims that the Corps’ decision violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it failed to consider the “indirect and cumulative effects” of the project and did not properly assess the need for an environmental impact statement.

“The Corps’ failure to consider ‘reasonably foreseeable’ greenhouse gas emissions outside Washington and Oregon was arbitrary and capricious,” Bryan wrote in his decision. “It pointed to benefits of the project as reducing greenhouse gases outside the geographical area it set. … The Corps then arbitrarily declined to consider reasonably foreseeable indirect cumulative effects of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The judge also ruled that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider the need to expand a regional gas pipeline as an effect of the project.

Kalama Mayor Mike Reuter, not speaking on behalf of the city, said the judge saw how the project would impact the regional gas supply and that the Corps’ study should have considered that. Reuter said the project’s backers “kept changing their story based on who they were talking to.”

While the judge found the Corps’ public interest assessment properly considered benefits of job creation, the agency “arbitrarily and capriciously relied on benefits of the project in worldwide reduction of greenhouse gases without conducting an assessment of the detriments worldwide.” The public interest assessment also did not consider whether the facility would have a noticeable impact on air quality near the site, according to the ruling.

The judge denied the conservation groups’ claim that the findings from the National Marine Fisheries Services, as part of the Endangered Species Act consultation with the Corps on the project, was invalid.

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