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In Tacoma, once known for its aroma, the mayoral race focuses on environment

The crowd at a 2016 public meeting in Tacoma rises when asked to stand if they oppose the proposed methanol plant.
KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn
Tacoma activists stand in opposition to a proposed methanol plant at a public meeting in 2016.

Environmental issues haven't been a big focus in the race to become Seattle's next mayor, but they're playing a key role in Tacoma.

Locals mobilized against a plan to build the world's largest methanol refinery at the Port of Tacoma last year. The Chinese firm behind the $3.6 billion project canceled it amid a storm of protest.

Now, the battle is over a liquid natural gas plant proposed for the Tacoma waterfront.

"This activity is not appropriate for the center of an urban city,” candidate and former Washington Public Disclosure Commission director Evelyn Lopez said. “The risks, I truly believe, are low, but anything that goes wrong could be devastating."

She said the project would lead to other heavily polluting industries setting up shop in Tacoma, a city once rhymingly known for its polluted aroma.

“That’s a history that we had, but it’s a history that we’re leaving behind,” Lopez said.

“We’ve worked way too hard in Tacoma to clean up the port and to clean up our waterfront,” former City Councilmember Victoria Woodards said at a recent candidates forum. “I do not support the expansion of new fossil fuel products on the port.”

Previously, Woodards had supported the project. In 2014, she sent a letter to the Port of Tacoma Commission backing the plant. More recently, she and another council member released a letter in October 2016 calling for a public forum, saying that despite their previous support for the project there were serious concerns about it.

Woodards did not respond to requests for comment about her current stance.

Architect Jim Merritt said the community should get to decide about the 8 million-gallon natural gas plant. He said natural gas could be part of a transition away from fossil fuels, but only if Puget Sound Energy is more transparent about its proposal.

“PSE must step up and tell us the consequences and the degree of risk,” he said. “Otherwise, the answer is 'no.'”

At the forum sponsored by Pierce County Activist Council and other activist groups, the three candidates also debated homelessness and affordable housing.

Lopez called for rent control, which Merritt said would be a disaster. Woodards criticized Merritt’s focus on home ownership.

“Some people aren’t destined to own, and just because they can’t own doesn’t mean that they shoudn’t be able to find an affordable place to live in Tacoma,” Woodards said.

They all criticized the Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned federal facility in Tacoma where where immigrants facing deportation are held.

“This is a private prison that they’re making money on,” Merritt said. “That has got to be stopped.”

Year started with KUOW: 2009