Cowlitz County has approved a key permit for a controversial methanol plant proposed on the Columbia River in the port city of Kalama.
The county’s hearing examiner Mark Scheibmeir concluded on Monday that the $1.8 billion project may proceed – provided developer NW Innovation Works complies with a long list of shoreline development permit conditions that require environmental and safety protections.
The plant would convert natural gas into methanol, which would be shipped overseas to be made into plastic. At full build-out, it would be the world’s largest methanol refinery, requiring a third of all the natural gas currently used in the state of Washington, according to Scheibmeir's report. The project's developer says it will generate 200 permanent jobs, 1,000 construction jobs, and millions of dollars in tax revenues.
The permit decision follows a three-day hearing last month in which the company, its supporters and opponents testified to whether the proposed project was safe and adequately protected the environment and the people nearby. After hearing their testimony, Scheibmeir concluded that it was.
His decision goes to the Washington Department of Ecology for review.
NW Innovation Works did not respond to messages left with the company seeking comment on Monday's decision.
Miles Johnson, an attorney with the opponent group Columbia Riverkeeper, said it is going to ask the agency to overturn the county’s approval because it ignores key environmental impacts of the project. If Ecology doesn’t object to the permits as written, he said, opponents can also appeal to the state’s Shorelines Hearings Board. His group is also challenging the environmental review of the project, which gave the company a green light to move forward in September.
"This not only invades into the Columbia River shoreline in a way that will have negative impacts on the river, but it would also be a huge contributor to Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when Washington is actually trying to walk back its contributions to climate change," he said.
Scheibmeir concluded that several issues were outside the scope of the state’s shorelines permitting process, including how the company would allocate all the natural gas it plans to use and whether it will emit too much greenhouse gas.
In his decision, he wrote the 1 million tons of of greenhouse gas emissions the plant is expected to emit is “difficult to reconcile” with the state’s goal of reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent in the next three years. But, he wrote, he doesn’t have a standard for regulating those emissions through a shoreline permit.
“While I am troubled by this project’s emissions of I conclude that I am without the authority to regulate it,” he wrote.
Scheibmeir also evaluated whether the project’s design will ensure public safety after a major earthquake, fire, explosion or spill. He decided the company had demonstrated its project could withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. But he added a requirement to fully mitigate environmental impacts of a spill into the Columbia River.
NW Innovation Works expanded its mitigation plans to offset environmental damage to wetlands, protected species and habitat. Its plans now include a promise by the Port of Kalama to permanently protect more than 90 acres north of the proposed project site. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which initially argued the company’s mitigation plan wasn’t good enough, has approved of the new plan.
“Over time, the proposed mitigation has steadily improved over the life of this project and now provides full mitigation,” Scheibmeir wrote in his decision.
Johnson said the proposed mitigation only addresses some of the impacts of development at the site and doesn’t cover the contributions to climate change from greenhouse gas emissions here or overseas. His group is also concerned about the company’s lack of a plan to stabilize the ground underneath the facility.
“The idea of extracting natural gas from North America and selling it overseas to create more plastics is probably not a good idea anywhere,” he said. “We think it’s the wrong direction for the Columbia River and the state of Washington"