Proposed methanol plant, pipeline stirs up SW Washington community

This "no methanol" sign expresses the sentiment of many people regarding the plan to build a methanol plant and pipeline just northwest of Kalama, Washington. (KATU Photo)

A multibillion dollar methanol plant and pipeline project in southwest Washington is one step closer to construction after Cowlitz County approved a shoreline permit.

The estimated $1.8 billion facility, operated by NW Innovative Works (NWIW), will sit on 90 acres approximately two miles northwest of Kalama.

NW Innovative Works President Vee Godley says the plant would act like a distillery, converting natural gas to methanol. The final product would then be shipped to Asia to make olifens, a key component in producing plastics and synthetic products.

Godley says a 3.1-mile-long, 24-inch diameter natural gas pipeline would be constructed to move natural gas from a pre-existing pipeline, operated by Williams Northwest Pipeline Company, to the proposed facility.

If approved, the facility will create approximately 1,000 construction jobs over a 3-year period.

Once it's complete, NWIW will employ approximately 200 full-time workers: 190 local employees, 10 recruited from outside the region.

"Those jobs also create about 5-600 more jobs in the long term," Godley said. "Cowlitz County has more industrial jobs than any other county on the western seaboard of Washington."

Jobs and regional growth, though, are well received by the opposition, but many are concerned about the environment and the pipeline's path.

Bill Spencer, an elected volunteer, manages Cowlitz County cemeteries, including Mt. Pleasant Cemetery on Hale Barber Road northeast of Kalama.

"If there was a pipeline breach, it could be devastating," Spencer told KATU. "I just want to preserve our area here, and I don't believe the placement of the pipeline is really the best place."

Spencer says the underground pipeline would cut through cemetery owned land, adjacent to historic gravesites, some dating back to the early 1800s.

"There are three Native Americans, a Civil War [veteran] and it dates back to Lewis & Clark," he said.

Not only is the preservation of the cemetery very important, Spencer says the hillsides along Kalama River are prone to landslides. Spencer says NWIW took soil samples last August, but wants them to test again because of their proximity to recent slides.

"They need to test the route again for the slide because of the problems," he said. "It's high risk."

Kalama resident John Flynn opposes the planned project.

"The only thing green in this project is the color of money," Flynn told KATU. "They're taking our cheap resources, natural gas, water, and electricity, making the methanol, shipping it to China for them to use in the plastics industry, to turn around and sell back to us at a profit."

Flynn, who regularly fishes the Columbia River, says the skyline will also change.

"I personally cannot envision myself, or my fellow boat fishermen, fishing in the shadow of this thing spewing toxins into the air," Flynn said.

Several environmental groups, including the Columbia Riverkeeper, are working daily to prevent the proposed methanol project.

"These massive methanol refinery proposals would profoundly increase our region’s consumption of fracked gas and drive the construction of massive new gas pipelines into the Pacific Northwest," the organization stated online. "Methane leaks from fracking gas wells and gas pipelines are so severe that scientists have concluded that fracked gas can be as bad for our climate as coal."

Flynn says by his numbers the plant will produce more than a million tons of greenhouse gases per year. It will release more than 53 tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants into the air.

According to NWIW, the Environmental Impact Statement found that all toxic air pollutants listed were found to comply with emission standards. The plant will require 3,038 gallons per minute of water, primarily for cooling reasons. The water would be drawn from an underground well that the Port of Kalama has water rights to.

NWIW says it would have little effect on the city of Kalama's water resources.

Godley says zero waste will be discharged into the Columbia River; rather, it will be released by steam into the air.

Washington state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-District 20, says he supports the proposed project.

Orcutt says the project will be a huge addition to the tax base, ultimately providing more funding for schools and local government services.

The Port of Kalama told KATU it is in favor of the project, too.

"I am empathetic for the needs for jobs; however, I really have a significant concern about the environmental impact to the local community," Flynn said.

Late Monday night, Williams Northwest Pipeline Company released this statement. It reads in part:

"According to U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) statistics, pipelines are the safest method for transporting energy. As this project is designed, constructed and operated, Williams is committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety. Once operational, the new pipeline will be maintained and operated according to procedures outlined in Northwest Pipeline’s Integrity Management Program. These procedures, many of which exceed minimum federal industry regulations, include monitoring of the pipeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."

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