Published on January 29th, 2016 | by M. Morford3
Location, location, location (how not to choose a site for a methanol plant)
There are three primary principles of real estate, whether residential, commercial or industrial: location, location and location. The Fukushima nuclear plants, for example, were built on Japan’s coastline for a practical and essential purpose; to ensure a steady, uninterrupted water supply to keep the system cool. The designers and engineers were very deliberate about the location of the reactors. It never occurred to them that the ocean waters essential to the cooling of the reactors would eventually lead to their destruction – and five years later, their continuing leakage of radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean.
The proponents of the Northwest Innovations Works methanol plant insist that the Port of Tacoma is the ideal site for their facility – the largest methanol plant in the world. The intended site is already an industrial zone, it is on a well-maintained rail line, and, of course, it is on a major West Coast port.
I understand all that; in terms of established infrastructure, it is a perfect location.
But as with Fukushima, there are far larger, more enduring and more powerful forces to keep in mind. Everyone who knows the area knows that we are long overdue for an earthquake – the big one. Mt. Rainier, as we all know from seeing it or from the Port’s glossy marketing, hovers in the background.
Mt. Rainier is not dormant.
It could erupt any time, and the western face, the side that faces Puget Sound, is the oldest, most brittle, and most likely to fail. And when, not if, that side of the mountain fails, the mud and lava flow will follow the Puyallup River into Commencement Bay – right through the Port of Tacoma.
On the West Coast, we are more aware than most of the hazards of tsunamis. In the studies and modeling, there is one area of south Puget Sound that is particularly vulnerable – the Port of Tacoma. Rail lines and Port access are essential to our local economy, but they too would be swept away by any of these natural catastrophes.
To place a facility like this, both toxic and potentially explosive, in an obvious hazard zone is foolhardy at best. A general rule of thumb is to have potentially dangerous industrial sites at least three miles from residential areas. This plant is about one mile from downtown Tacoma and about that same distance from several residential neighborhoods.
This whole project is owned and paid for, not by some US based or even global corporation, but by the Chinese government. In China, fatal industrial accidents kill workers each day. Even if we imagine that Chinese building and manufacturing standards have miraculously improved, that the jobs are stable, safe, and use local labor, that the facility is safe, that we can afford a facility that uses the water and energy of a mid-sized city, and yes, that we need the product, then perhaps the methanol plant is worth building.
But should we, in an era of rapidly rising sea levels, increasing likelihood of serious earthquakes, and all of us facing an inevitable volcanic eruption, build a potentially hazardous facility in what is arguably the lowest and most vulnerable site on the West Coast?
We will be coping with the radioactive legacy of Fukushima for generations to come. The last thing we need is our own Tacoma brand of a toxic contribution to the Salish Sea.
When it comes to human made infrastructure versus nature, nature always wins.