Turning A Blind Eye To Race In STEM: The Puyallup Tribe’s fight to halt the Tacoma’s Liquified Natural Gas Plant
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) serves over 1,000,000 customers in western Washington, and in 2016, PSE began construction of a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant in Tacoma. Although the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the Tacoma Human Rights Commission both issued notices of missing construction approval, environmental evidence, and consultation with the Puyallup Tribe, PSE constructed the plant, began testing, and is ready to start operations.
Since 2019, the Puyallup Tribe, which lives immediately next to the plant, has publicly opposed the plant due to safety and pollution concerns for the health of themselves, those living in the nearby National Detention Center, and other Tacoma residents. The Puyallup Tribe, represented by EarthJustice, opened a case against PSE in late 2019. Their concern, which the Puyallup Tribe is presenting in the court case, is that PSE used outdated environmental science about methane to justify the construction of the plant.
“When you look at the life cycle emissions from the fracking well, through the pipeline, through the burning of it, it’s actually just as bad as coal, and probably on a faster timeline,” Stephanie Hillman, the Northwest Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club, said.
Although the impacts of coal are measured on a 100 year timeline, methane gas is so powerful that its impacts are measured on a 20 year timeline, Hillman explained. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere doubled over the past two centuries, making it the second most abundant anthropogenic, or from human activity, greenhouse gas. It is also 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, which makes it a significant contributor to global warming. Current science shows that the continued use of frack gas should not be considered “clean” or “green,” as PSE claims.
Megan Ybarra, associate professor of geography at the University of Washington, pointed out that even when the plant is undergoing normal operation, there will always be some gas leakage.
“[PSE is also] planning for a massive increase in maritime traffic that goes in and out of the port — and so what that means is that there’s gonna be more air pollution, and there’s also gonna be more water pollution [affecting salmon]”, Ybarra said.
Pollution not only affects the health of the environment, but also the health of the community living near the plant as residents are exposed to these increased levels of pollution. Air pollution exposure has been linked to asthma and other respiratory problems, heart attacks, and increased mortality rate.
The second major concern surrounding PSE’s LNG plant is the safety of the community living nearby, because the plant contains a highly combustible gas that could be extremely dangerous if an accident were to occur.
“Anyone within a 12 mile area of this facility is in grave danger if something goes wrong with this facility, particularly within a three mile radius of this facility because they would be directly in a blast zone,” Hillman said. “[The Northwest Detention Center] is also within the blast zone and they have a policy should something go horribly wrong with shelter in place. There is no protection if you shelter in place, you are immediately in the blast zone.”
In 2014, an accident at the Plymouth, Washington LNG plant caused a gas leak and an explosion that injured five workers and caused hundreds of evacuations. The Tacoma plant holds 8 million gallons of liquid natural gas, the equivalent of 166 kilotons of TNT, Ybarra stated. An accident at the LNG plant is especially concerning because of PSE’s poor track record in the past.
“Puget Sound Energy has a record of basically not following the rules and then workers make mistakes because they don’t have all of the supplies they need,” Ybarra said. “We’ve had a series of PSE explosions, mistakes, issues that have happened.”
Earlier this year, in March 2021, Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant called for an investigation into PSE, given their part in a previous explosion and fire. Sawant wants to assess the risk of future accidents and the risk of continuing to rely on gas — rather than converting to cleaner, renewable energy sources. These concerns extend to the LNG plant, where an accident could threaten the safety of the Puyallup Tribe and Tacoma residents within the 12 mile radius of the plant.
The Tacoma LNG plant also endangers those in the Northwest Detention Center, which detains people that Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to deport. Largely criticized by immigration and human rights activists, lawmakers finally made a motion to have it potentially shut down. The center will still run until at least 2025, however, putting lives in danger until then if the LNG plant goes into operation this year.
Although the current legal battle surrounds the health and safety concerns of the plant, activists believe this plant should not have been constructed in the first place because it lacked full legal permissions, bypassing the required consent process with the Puyallup Tribe. This highlights a pattern of blatant disregard for the health and safety of Indigenous communities for the sake of accessing resources, the most well-known example being the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“In just about every fossil fuel or dirty industrial project in the country, or maybe even in the world, have we seen this,” Hillman said. “We see this as a systematic problem — corporations and permit givers are devaluing the people that live in these areas.”
The Puyallup Tribe lives near the Tacoma Tideflats, upon which the LNG plant was built, and has rights to the area under the Treaty of Medicine Creek. During the 20th century, industrial development broke treaty rights by introducing pollution to the land and water. Under the Treaty of Medicine Creek, there should have been engagement with an informed consent process with the Puyallup Tribe before building the LNG plant, but it never happened. In fact, the plant violates the treaty, which intends to protect salmon for its important place within the Puyallup Tribe. The Puyallup Tribe once had a diet of primarily salmon and held — and continue to hold — ceremonies and traditions to welcome the salmon each year, but pollution and dams have contributed to decreases in the salmon population.
Ybarra would like to see greater accountability from the city and PSE to engage in the proper consent process. Hillman hopes that we can uplift, support, and follow the lead of the communities most impacted. Indigenous leaders have been holding kayak prayer vigils against the LNG plant, continuing the centuries-long fight for the right to protect land, water, and health.
The outcome for whether the Tacoma plant will run is still unclear; the hearing started on April 12th and ended on April 23rd, but decisions usually require several months to be reached. The Tribe and its allies hope that the case is ruled in their favor, discrediting PSE’s argument and blocking the LNG plant from operation.
Last updated 5/7/2021
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