Editor’s note:An earlier online version of this story overestimated the number of people attending the hearing.
The proposed $2 billion Kalama methanol plant took heavy criticism Thursday night from an audience of about 600 people, a large majority of them from outside Cowlitz County.
Wearing anti-methanol red shirts, opponents packed the Cowlitz Expo Center for a four-hour public hearing held by the Port of Kalama on the plant’s potential impact on global climate change. The hearing had to be extended an hour, to 10 p.m., because of the size of the audience and demands to speak.
Of the 498 people who signed up for a lottery for a chance to testify, 352 of them, or 71 percent, were from outside Cowlitz County. Attendees from Portland alone (109) nearly doubled the number of people from Longview (54) or Kalama (58).
Kalama Mayor Mike Reuter, saying he was speaking as a private citizen, said he opposed the project due to its use of natural gas as a feedstock to make methanol.
“This was a hard decision to come up here. For the port and the county, I know this is important for business, but (I can’t support it),” he said.
State Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview) said he supported the project because it will create construction jobs in the area.
“At one time we did have good-paying jobs and we want to get back to that,” Takko said. “For transportation, health care, mental health — you name it, our metrics are not that great here and part of the reason is we don’t have the jobs we used to have.”
Pre-meeting rallies by both supporters and opponents attracted hundreds of people.
The plant would convert natural gas to methanol, a key ingredient in plastics manufacturing, and would be shipped to Asia. China-backed Northwest Innovation Works (NWIW) would build the facility on 90 acres at the north end of the Port of Kalama.
The public hearing was a chance for people to comment on a “cradle-to-grave” study released last month on the plant’s impact on worldwide carbon emissions.
The crowd was repeatedly asked throughout the night to stop cheers or scoffs. As a result, a sea of thumbs rose into the air to show support or opposition after each speaker. The vast majority of the hands opposed the project.
Local officials, including Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber, Kelso City Councilman Mike Karnofski, and Longview City Councilmen Scott Vydra and Mike Wallin all spoke in support of the project.
State Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) said the NWIW apprentice program would provide a way for local young people to find “gainful employment” and would build up the local tax base.
NWIW last month announced it would hire Longview contractor JH Kelly to build major parts of the plant and committed to using local union construction labor.
NWIW has also said it would try to hire locally for its 200 permanent jobs.
Clatsop County Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan said the port should look for more environmentally-friendly employers.
“As decision makers, we need to have the courage to say no,” she said.
Sally Keely, a 20-year Kalama resident, said there are no assurances China would use the methanol to create plastic or that the plant would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as the November study concluded.
“No reasonable person can think building a refinery will be good for the environment,” she said.
The environmental study, conducted by California-based Life Cycle Associates, found the project would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal-based methanol plants that produce far greater volumes of carbon dioxide.
NWIW paid “six figures” for the environmental study after the state Shorelines Hearings Board concluded the original climate change analysis for the plant was inadequate and the company needed to consider the global impact of the carbon emissions.
Many speakers Thursday night questioned the study’s findings and said it did not adequately account for possible methane leaks throughout production and transportation. They also questioned the idea that the plant would displace coal-based methanol projects and said the study underestimates the potency of methane and the project’s reliance on fracked natural gas.
Retired earth science professor David Cordero of Longview said he knows the area needs jobs, but fracked natural gas is harmful for the environment.
“This (project) will increase the production of fracked gas and increase the production of plastics, which will have a terrible impact on the environment and oceans,” he said.
Local union leader Justin Sellers Thursday touted NWIW’s decision to have zero liquid discharges into the Columbia River.
The plant would release about 1.1 million tons of carbon at the Kalama site. NWIW has said it would voluntarily work to reduce or compensate those carbon releases through actions such as purchasing verified carbon credits or paying a comparable amount to a greenhouse gas mitigation fund.
In perhaps the most exciting exchange of the night, seven members of the Portland Raging Grannies sang their opposition to the project by changing the lyrics to the Christmas carol “Winter Wonderland.”
Because only one person was allowed to speak at a time, officials threatened to the turn the microphone off and cancel the hearing. The Raging Grannies instead turned around and continued singing while facing the crowd to loud cheers until they were gently ushered back to their seats.
The public will still be able to submit written comments until Dec. 28.
The comments will be compiled into a final report, released early next year, which could be used as the basis for issuing permits for the project.