Around 250 people, mostly women, carried banners and sang with drummers while marching through the streets of Tacoma, Washington, on Tuesday. Led by Cheryl Angel, an indigenous activist present at Standing Rock last year, the demonstrators headed toward a city council meeting to protest a liquefied natural gas plant project. There was just one problem – officials had locked the doors to City Hall. Demonstrators weren’t discouraged, however, as they finished their march at a nearby plaza.
“They call it protesting,” Angel said, while speaking in the plaza. “Why are they calling it protesting? Are we really protesting, or are we standing up for what’s right? Because this shouldn’t have to be a protest, it should be an acknowledgment [of our rights].”
Washington’s oldest energy utility, Puget Sound Energy, or PSE, is behind the over $300 million facility, which is expected to be completed and operational in the port area of the Tacoma Tideflats by late 2019. The Tacoma LNG Facility, as it’s called, will be able to process and hold approximately 8 million gallons of liquefied natural gas – obtained via hydraulic fracking from nearby Rocky Mountain states and parts of Canada – and is mainly intended for use by local residents, as well as ships passing by the Port of Tacoma.
Since the natural gas will be in a liquefied state, it must stay in a cryogenic setting, as it is easily flammable. It is this fact that has many locals worried, particularly since another LNG facility in Plymouth, Washington, exploded and left four people dead in 2014.
As a result of their concerns, Tacoma residents and nearby indigenous communities have been organizing and mobilizing to stop construction of the plant for over two years. At first, they attended city council meetings to voice their opposition. They asked for environmental reviews, but were continually rebuffed, as the general excitement of local officials combined with the promise of tax breaks seemed to trump their concerns.
“That wasn’t effective in stopping the beginning of the construction of this project,” said James Hanika, an activist with the group Water Protectors. “So now we’re at a point where we have to be physically present for the construction.”
Hanika was referring to an action that took place during the early morning hours of May 17, when six people chained themselves to a piece of machinery at the Tacoma LNG Facility site. After police were called by construction workers, 16 police cars arrived, shutting down all nearby roads. Officers then arrested the six activists, including a 79-year-old woman, and charged them with trespassing and obstruction. Their trials are set to begin in September.
Among the arrestees – now dubbed the Tacoma Super Six – was Tacoma Direct Action co-founder Sarah Morken, who opposes the Tacoma LNG Facility because of the danger it poses to the community and environment. Her organizing efforts led her to run for a City Council seat. Although unsuccessful in her bid for local office, she received an “overwhelmingly positive” reaction from the people she met while door knocking for her campaign.
“[I told them] how much it’s going to cost ratepayers and how many people are going to be in the area of danger from that thing,” Morken said. “There’s very few people I’ve met who want it.”
Since the May 17 plant action, opponents of the Tacoma LNG Facility have held several marches and nighttime demonstrations. While many were inspired by the protests at Standing Rock last year – with some even visiting the camps – they are also drawing motivation from another recent local victory over the fossil fuel industry.
Last year, residents succeeded in stopping a proposed methanol plant – an over $3 billion plan from Northwest Innovation Works, a Chinese-owned company that constructs “clean-tech facilities.” After months of protests, the firm released a statement in April 2016 noting it would be “terminating its lease for a site on the tide flats with the Port of Tacoma.”
The Puyallup Tribe, an indigenous community native to the lands in the Pacific Northwest, were at the forefront of the struggle, challenging the methanol plant both in the courts and in the streets. The tribe is now among the groups challenging the Tacoma LNG Facility, since it may affect the nearby tribal marinas used for fishing.
“We’re just tired and saying enough is enough,” said Dakota Case of the Water Warriors movement. “The port is trying to push fossil fuels on us more and more. It’s just a disruption of the way of life that we live.”
In addition to demonstrating against the plant, the tribe went to court to prevent the project from continuing. It is challenging a permit PSE received for the facility on whether construction will take place the required 200 feet from the shoreline.
While PSE stresses that the LNG plant is more environmentally friendly than a diesel plant, it would – as Case pointed out – still emit carbon into the atmosphere.
“Not only that, but it’s [using] a fracked gas,” he said. “Fracking is one of the worst methods to ever come out of the fossil fuel industry.”
Tarika Powell, a senior research associate at the Seattle-based nonprofit Sightline Institute, began studying the LNG project over a year ago. Her research found problems with PSE’s LNG plant proposal, such as safety hazards, inadequate oversight and knowledge from regulators, and lack of transparency over the project.
According to Powell, PSE misled city officials on the project “because the people they were talking to know less about this issue than they do.” (The company did not respond to questions, but notes on the project’s website that it would never risk its reputation “by spreading misleading or incorrect information.”)
For instance, she brought up the city’s Environmental Impact Statement of the Tacoma LNG Facility. In contrast to PSE’s argument that the facility would benefit Tacoma residents, Powell said, just 7 percent of its fuel would go to locals. Meanwhile, 75 percent would go to ships passing through the port.
“Essentially, it seemed what the city did was allow Puget Sound Energy to provide all the information that went into the environmental impact statement,” she said. “They all but wrote it themselves.”
Normally the Washington Department of Ecology would oversee and permit projects like Tacoma LNG Facility. Instead, authority was given to the city of Tacoma, possibly due to a limited budget. As a result, Powell faced problems in verifying information from city regulators of the project. Last August, she sent questions to Tacoma officials overseeing the project. She is yet to receive a response.
“Permitting processes should be carried out adequately, no matter what city you’re in, no matter what agency gets the project. It all should receive the same scrutiny,” Powell said. “When it doesn’t, we are further marginalizing people who have already been taken advantage of.”
Those interviewed noted the company did not reach out in any fashion, and some even claimed to suffer harassment from PSE officials, as well as local police, during protests.
According to Case, PSE has engaged in “guerrilla tactics” in an effort to intimidate its opponents. Citing an example from a demonstration several months ago, he said a woman, possibly from PSE, approached him and asked if he was Dakota Case. Case verified his identity and asked the woman for her name, but she declined to give any form of identification and refused to speak with any tribal representative.
“That was a red flag,” Case said.
Despite any efforts at intimidation, activists are determined to continue their campaigns against the plant by pressuring city officials at town meetings and organizing events such as the march that took place last week.
“This is not just a fight for the indigenous of this area,” said Puyallup Tribe member Anna Bean, “but our entire community, as far as clean air, soil and wildlife [are concerned]. The project affects all aspects of this community.”