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Methanol plant site

Northwest Innovation Works $2 billion methanol plant would be built at the north end of the Port of Kalama. 

Northwest Innovation Works cleared another major permitting hurdle Wednesday, as regulators granted an air pollution permit for its proposed $1.8 billion Kalama methanol plant.

Barring any appeals, the project is now in the home stretch of the permitting process, more than three years after it was first announced.

The air permit limits the amount of air pollutants the plant could release. Regulators with the Southwest Clean Air Agency say the plant would be a minor source of air pollution, though it would emit 1 million tons of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide annually. (Carbon dioxide is not physically harmful, but it contributes to rising global temperatures by trapping heat.)

According Northwest Innovation, the air permit was one of the last two major permits needed from the state and county to build its plant. It’s still awaiting the state Department of Ecology’s approval of a shoreline permit and a handful of federal permits for the Columbia River dock. A related project to build a 3.1-mile gas pipeline to service the methanol plant is undergoing a separate permitting process.

“This has been a long, very thorough and focused, exhaustive process, and we do appreciate the hard work our public service workers provide us,” said Vee Godley, president of Northwest Innovation Works.

Godley said the company is still reviewing the final air permit, which has been updated to respond to public comments. The new permit is similar to a draft permit released in November, but with additional monitoring and testing requirements.

About 1,000 people voiced opinions on the draft permit, the highest number of comments SWCAA has received on a project in at least a decade, said Uri Papish, executive director at Southwest Clean Air Agency.

Miles Johnson, attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, which opposes the project, said the environmental group is reviewing the technical document and has not decided whether it will file an appeal with the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

“We were disappointed to see a permit that still allows over 1 million tons of greenhouse emissions from Washington. It’s a massive new source of climate pollution at a time when we’re supposed to be going the other way and when Gov. (Jay) Inslee has been talking about taking leadership on climate change,” Johnson said.

The plant’s allowable emissions of carbon dioxide — the chief gas linked to climate change — would be equivalent to adding about 227,287 cars to the roadways.

Yet the Chinese-backed company has pitched the project as an environmentally method of producing methanol that would reduce industry reliance on coal. The company also says it would use a new ultra-low emissions technology to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses compared to the traditional manufacturing methods.

Typically the Southwest Clean Air Agency doesn’t regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but Northwest Innovation Works voluntarily requested the agency set a limit in its air permit, according to the agency.

Under the permit, the plant could emit up to 44 tons per a year of toxic and hazardous pollutants (previously reports incorrectly double-counted some substances). Ammonia (35 tons) and methanol itself (seven tons) would account for the biggest share of the plant’s toxic releases. It also could emit up to 75 tons per a year of nitrogen oxide and 17.5 tons of sulfur dioxide.

The methanol plant would emit less than one tenth of the toxic air pollutants released by pulp and paper mills in Longview. In 2015, KapStone Paper and Packaging Corp. emitted about 550 tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants, and the Weyerhaeuser Co. complex emitted about 532 tons, according to EPA reports.

Emission limits are set by permit. As a practical matter, to avoid violations and penalties, mill operators typically keep limits well below permit levels.

The new methanol air permit adds several additional requirements for monitoring emissions and increases the frequency of testing for volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, among other changes. The plant also must use marine vessel tanks dedicated to methanol or else clean out the tanks prior to loading.

SWCAA also updated the permit to reflect new information about the project, including the company’s commitment to a zero-liquid discharge manufacturing process that will avoid releasing any wastewater into the Columbia River.

The plant at the Port of Kalama would create nearly 200 permanent jobs, 1,000 construction jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenue. The project would convert natural gas into methanol, which would be shipped to Asia to make plastics.

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