KALAMA — An upcoming port commission race is a defacto referendum on the controversial $2 billion methanol plant a China-backed company wants to build on a waterfront here.
The choices could not be more clear: Incumbent Alan Basso, along with two other commissioners, voted to lease a site at the Port of Kalama’s north port property to Northwest Innovation Works, which would convert natural gas piped to the site into methanol for shipment to Asia.
Gary Wallace is an outspoken opponent of the project. Even if he is elected, though, Wallace may not be able to do much to stop the project. He’d be outnumbered on the commission two-to-one and there could be legal barriers to pulling the plug on the project. However, Wallace said whether he wins or loses, the race in an opportunity for people to “wake up and think.”
“I’m in this because I think it’s been going down the wrong path,” Wallace said. “I’m not worried about standing up against methanol. … I think it’s time people are given a choice. Most often this position is unopposed.”
Wallace, 67, was born in Longview and grew up in Kelso. He got an associates degree in psychology from Lower Columbia College and got a bachelor's in political science from Western Washington University in the 1970s. Wallace has a varied work history including years in logging, hospital administration, medical consulting before retiring a few years ago from his small-time contracting business.
He’s been involved in the local anti-methanol movement for about four years and is president of the Lower Columbia Stewardship Community.
“I’m adamantly opposed to fossil fuels,” Wallace said. “I’ve been at this for 3.5 years, and I’m not going to back down.”
Basso, 57, grew up in Kalama and has spent the last 25 years at the Longview Fire Department, where he is a lieutenant. He was first appointed to the port commission in 2012 after long-time Commissioner Jim Lucas died. Basso ran unopposed in 2013 and said he welcomes a challenger this year.
“There’s not much point in having an election if there’s not a choice for people,” he said.
Basso said he decided to run for a second six-year term to continue working on unfinished and upcoming projects, including the methanol plant.
“We’re going to keep going forward,” Basso said. “This is a good project.”
The methanol plant is a way to diversify the area’s industry and create new jobs after the loss of big employers in the last 50 years, he said. The port has expanded its businesses to include grain, chemicals, steel and other industries, the methanol plant will take that one step further, he said.
“I think it’s prudent that we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” Basso said.
NWIW said the plant would create 1,000 construction jobs, 200 permanent positions and add millions of dollars to the local property tax base.
Two shoreline permits the project needs to move forward are on hold until the release of a final supplemental environmental study that analyzed the project’s effect on global carbon emissions.
Kent Caputo, NWIW general counsel, said last month once the final supplemental study is released, Cowlitz County and state Department of Ecology will review it and determine “what if any” changes will be made with the permits.
Wallace said the project is “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and should be dropped if Ecology “says it doesn’t meet muster.”
Most people want to get away from industrial pollution and maintain the quiet atmosphere of Kalama, he said.
“I believe it’s time to get off fossil fuel,” Wallace said. “I think a different direction (for the port) is light industrial, commercial and more tourism. Kalama is the ideal setting. It’s why people live here, for the quality of life. They don’t want to see it denigrated by foreign-held infrastructure using fracked gas.”
According to environmental studies, the Kalama plant would not release any water pollution and would have minor impacts on air quality. NWIW has pledged to compensate for all 1.1 million tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions in Washington, and a recent “cradle to grave” study showed it would have a net decrease on greenhouse gas emissions globally by displacing coal-fed methanol plants in Asia.
The port already is home to over 30 businesses, five that have marine access and employ more than 50 people and one that does not have marine access but employs more than 90. It houses a handful of commercial tenants and the rest are manufacturing or repair businesses.
McMenamins and the significant hotel tax it’s generating proves that tourism is a money-making investment, Wallace said. The port should pursue other businesses that support tourist activities and take advantage of recreation opportunities for its Spencer Creek Business Park, he said.
“Fossil fuel is killing us,” he said. “(The methanol plant) is an irreversible problem waiting for another type of Reynolds (Metals) clean up. I don’t want to wait for a mistake to occur.”