Above Photo: Peter Haley
If you thought Tacoma’s methanol protest movement — with the red shirts and bumper stickers that popped up through the spring — disappeared with the end of the Tideflats plant proposal, just look around.
You could glimpse its future at a victory concert activists held in a downtown tavern on a Sunday in late April.
Children clad in red shirts gamboled under a hand-drawn “We Won!” sign taped to a table. A city-issued notification poster snatched off the methanol plant’s would-be site hung like a battle trophy above the musicians’ heads. At their feet, a different sign noted the movement’s next target.
“No LNG,” it read, shorthand for the group’s nascent push against Puget Sound Energy’s planned liquefied natural gas plant.
A few yards away, a woman with a clipboard gathered signatures for another fight: a pair of ballot issues aimed to limit industrial uses of Tacoma’s water.
“The trick now is to see how the coalition can maintain the beachhead,” said John Carlton, an organizer with RedLine Tacoma, the largest and most active of several groups that emerged during the methanol debate.
Carlton, a multimedia designer, handed out anti-methanol T-shirts as souvenirs and watched the celebrating crowd mill through The Swiss. From a bar stool, he described a desire to see Tacoma build itself around environmentally sustainable businesses that don’t deplete the city’s livability or natural resources.
“This is not an anti-business thing,” he said of the group’s agenda. “It’s more of a vision thing.”
Critics say the activists are too quick to embrace unproven claims of public danger with a fervor that can drown out measured debate.
“It feels as though we have messages being telegraphed without proper context,” said Lou Paulsen, the Port of Tacoma’s director for strategic operations projects, “and maybe they’re factual, but they’re not necessarily relevant.”
So far, the group’s most public activities have taken the form of protests.
One afternoon recently at a bustling Northeast Tacoma intersection, a cluster of activists met to wave LNG-themed signs during rush-hour traffic.
“We don’t want to have to work this hard,” said Nanette Reetz, 56, a RedLine volunteer and the owner of a UPS store in Northeast Tacoma, where she’s lived for 25 years. “I got a brand-new grandbaby that I just want to spend time with.”
She held up signs while passing cars honked. One was a “No LNG” placard, laminated to be rainproof. Her other sign inquired about the LNG plant’s explosion potential and Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s loyalties.
“We don’t want more industry,” Reetz said. “We want less, and I don’t know how to achieve that unless they quit putting all their junk on our side of the port.”
Emboldened by the withdrawal of much-criticized plans to construct the world’s largest methanol plant on longtime industrial Port of Tacoma land, an alliance of long-standing and fledgling organizations has coalesced around an agenda of urban environmentalism.
This extends to almost any new fossil fuel-based use of South Sound land, members said, starting with the LNG project, which is set to open in 2019, if it’s built.
Val Peaphon, a labor union organizer and RedLine volunteer, described its ideal as “a strong South Sound economy that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels” but instead is built on making the city a driver of the conversion to renewable, cleaner energy sources.
She and other RedLine members wrote an op-ed article for The News Tribune with a “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” section. They said natural gas, although it produces fewer emissions than other fuels, is an insufficient incremental step that will slow the transition to carbon-free energy generation, and that gas produced by fracking comes with environmental consequences too odious to accept.
“We need to be on a crash course to get rid of fossil fuels as a thing that drives our economy,” said William Kupinse, an English professor at University of Puget Sound and RedLine member who has lived in Tacoma 14 years.
A Puget Sound Energy spokesman said this stance neglects the improvement to Tacoma’s air that the LNG plant would enable by replacing particulate-heavy diesel in ships in Commencement Bay.
“It’s really important to look at the environmental benefits of the LNG project,” said Grant Ringel, the utility’s director of communications, “and to look at what the trade-off would be in forgoing those environmental benefits. And it is a clear-cut case of significantly cleaner air for Tacoma with this project.”
Paulsen, of the Port of Tacoma, called the stance a case of making “the perfect the enemy of the good” for the port and city.
“I think it’s far better that we can make progress toward the objective of reducing emissions,” Paulsen said, “and not necessarily get fixated on jumping to something that is not yet attainable.”
RedLine’s agenda, however, is absolute and extends beyond clean air for the city.
The group has no regular meetings or formal leadership. Instead, through its website and Facebook page — which has more than 3,000 “likes” — members post events, news stories of common interest and other messages about what they say are a litany of threats to quality of life in Tacoma and society in general.
Among the most prominent themes: potential chemical spills or explosions from accidents at the proposed LNG plant or from oil trains running through the city, risks related to natural-gas fracking in Canada and elsewhere, and the consequences of global warming.
Starting with methanol and continuing in efforts against each of these issues, RedLine has found an ally in the Puyallup Tribe.
The tribe has placed advertisements against fossil fuels expansion and has taken an appeal over the LNG plant to the state Shoreline Hearings Board. RedLine members also stood with Puyallup tribal leaders in a May Day march to protest the shooting by Tacoma police of tribe member Jacqueline Salyers.
A tribe spokesman repeatedly postponed an interview to discuss RedLine, then stopped returning calls.
The group has forged other alliances as well. The Sierra Club’s local chapter joined RedLine’s cause and covered costs of flying in a chemical-industry expert from Louisiana to describe pollution associated with methanol production facilities under an older manufacturing method.
Dorothy Walker, the Sierra Club’s local chapter president and an ally of RedLine, said the group’s aim falls in line with the national Sierra Club’s opposition to increasing use of fossil fuels, even relatively cleaner ones. Walker said she has “never seen a movement of this size or intensity” regarding the South Sound environment.
The Sierra Club paid “just under $2,000,” Walker said, to bring the Louisiana expert, Wilma Subra, to Tacoma to speak about methanol.
“I think people see the value of clean industries and feel that they don’t need to have an economy that’s dependent on being sick and breathing bad air,” said Walker, a Gig Harbor resident who has lived in the Tacoma area since the 1960s. “For many, many people, their first reaction was, ‘No. We had Asarco. We aren’t interested in doing that again.’”
THE FIGHT AGAINST METHANOL
Carlton and other RedLine members say they were drawn together by the methanol project proposed by Northwest Innovation Works in fall 2015, more than a year after its lease was approved at a Port of Tacoma commission meeting.
The autumn 2015 disclosure that the operation would require more than 10 million gallons of fresh water daily and more electricity than Tacoma Public Utilities could generate became a unifying concern, Carlton said. Within weeks, like-minded residents began flocking to public events.
They chose red as a common clothing color, christened themselves RedLine as a symbol of a sharp point of demarcation and ferried a portable light-up sign reading “NO METHANOL” to rally support outside public meetings, including the hearings over the methanol plant.
“It was really intense,” said Doug Mackey, a north Tacoma resident and voice-over artist who joined RedLine. “It really took over people’s lives in order to attend (public) meetings and do the work.”
Inside the meetings, members harangued public officials and forcefully vented their frustrations. At times, fervent applause would follow a call for an elected official’s ouster.
As evidence of the plant’s danger, many activists cited a “blast zone” map, drawn by Carlton and loosely based on news reports and posted online, that placed the plant’s storage tanks of flammable methanol within range of a potential disaster at the LNG plant.
The Puget Sound Energy website about the LNG project labeled Carlton’s map “false,” but the utility’s map of a smaller disaster radius has not been circulated as widely as Carlton’s.
Carlton, who with his wife, Claudia Reidener, remains an active RedLine organizer, is in the midst of a court fight over his request for public records related to the LNG project and safety concerns. The dispute is expected to be decided by an appeals court.
Anti-methanol public speakers said China’s role in the project raised their suspicions. At a February public hearing at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, the words “China” or “Chinese” were used 60 times, according to a transcript. Several speakers said China’s environmental record within its own borders was troubling. One man said he didn’t trust China-made dog treats.
Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, wrote in a News Tribune op-ed article that some activists’ behavior “conjured sad chapters of history” by evoking anti-Chinese sentiments.
Without central organization, the all-volunteer group’s unmoderated discourse frequently grew unruly. A Washougal address purported to be the home of Northwest Innovation Works president Murray “Vee” Godley was posted to RedLine’s busy Facebook page. Government officials and media reports also drew heavy criticism.
Northwest Innovation Works frustrated activists and officials alike with the lack of information provided about their plans.
The anti-methanol movement, spurred by social media, was unlike anything in Tacoma’s living civic memory, former mayors Bill Baarsma and Brian Ebersole said.
“I do not think this could’ve happened in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s,” said Ebersole, who opposed the methanol project.
He said Twitter and Facebook had catalyzed a long-growing sentiment among longtime residents.
“I think the mood of the city since 1990 has clearly been, ‘Let’s be cleaner. Let’s have a different kind of image. Let’s not be known as a gritty industrial town,’ ” Ebersole said. “The old guard, the union guys — what few remain — they obviously wanted the jobs, but (with) their next-door neighbors in South Tacoma, I was surprised at how widespread and consistent the opposition was.”
Several RedLine members said they didn’t recall anything regrettable about the tone of the methanol debate. Val Peaphon, who helps moderate the group’s Facebook page, said she had not seen Godley’s address posted.
“The people that I stood with were incredibly thoughtful and reasonable people who used the best information they could get,” Kupinse said, “even when they were being stonewalled.”
Kupinse and other RedLine members said they had not wanted to wait for the project’s official approval process to complete an environmental impact statement, citing perceived inherent flaws of that process.
“That process almost always ends in a plant being built,” Kupinse said. “Any outside, third-party environmental consulting firm that recommended not building projects that an industry wanted would soon find itself with no business at all. Their job is not to say no.”
Northwest Innovation Works withdrew its proposal before the environmental study was carried out.
Mayor Strickland declined a telephone interview for this story. In response to emailed questions, she wrote that the heated discourse kept “residents who were open to a full analysis of the project” from being heard.
“By the time the project was canceled, the debate was laced with personal attacks, xenophobia and conspiracy theories,” the mayor wrote.
A documentary filmmaker, Melinda Raebyne, began following RedLine during the methanol debate and filmed several of their public events.
“They’ve been called a lot of things,” she said. “They’re not racists. There are people from different races in the group. And they’re not just tree-hugging people. They care about where they live and their health and the health of others.”
REDLINE’S NEXT MOVES
Even before the withdrawal of the methanol proposal in April, RedLine members had spread their cause to move against a range of pending projects, mostly tangentially related to its original cause.
When Northwest Innovation Works’ project in Kalama came up for a public hearing, Roxy Murray, a Tacoma photographer and artist, was among the RedLine members who carpooled down. She argued with some plant supporters and was escorted out by police.
Peaphon said the group, which remains all-volunteer, could be a starting point for a political campaign, although she has no plans to run. She said the group would like a way to formally participate in city planning efforts to influence future decisions. She said RedLine members on the city’s sustainability commission had quit when they felt blindsided by the methanol project.
“We need to be more vigilant at finding these things before we’re under the gun,” she said, “before they’ve signed a 30-year lease.”
Strickland wrote in an email that she would like to see the group’s energy focused on “recruiting 1,000 volunteer summer reading tutors for children from underserved neighborhoods.”
The mayor, against whom RedLine members filed an ethics complaint during the methanol debate, was asked if she would work directly with the group.
“I interact with diverse individuals and organizations every day and we don’t always agree,” she wrote, “but I am willing to work with people who are rational, open-minded, inclusive, respectful and capable of having a true dialogue.”
At the recent Northeast Tacoma protest, Reetz and other RedLine volunteers had few kind words to say about Strickland.
“She had a knack for telling people what they want to hear,” said Jim Probert, 54, a carpenter and lifelong Tacoma resident.
Reetz said she was skeptical about whether she’d ever be able to reconcile her position with RedLine with the idea of working with the mayor. She faulted Strickland for helping to promote the methanol project’s progress and for the lack of early public attention on now-controversial details of the LNG proposal.
A RedLine offshoot, Save Tacoma Water, already is directly working in politics, collecting signatures for a pair of ballot issues aimed to limit industrial uses of city water.
“That methanol was a godsend to all of our citizens,” said Donna Walters, a co-chair of Save Tacoma Water. “It awakened a sleeping giant.”
The consequences of the still-percolating debate over the futures of the port and city remain to be seen.