This famous line from 1967’s “The Graduate” comes to mind when pondering one of the latest large industrial developments planned for the Lower Columbia River: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. … Plastics.”
In that far simpler time 50 years ago, it was plausible to suggest to a fresh college graduate that his future — and indeed the world’s — could hinge on that then-new material. Countless uses have been developed for the many varieties of plastic created by chemical laboratories and factories. We’re surrounded by it in our vehicles. Our trash cans fill up every day with single-use plastic packing materials. It would take near-fanatical concentration to avoid it entirely.
Though it has yet to make much of an impression upon public awareness here near the mouth of the river, a proposed chemical plant in Kalama, Washington, is exciting much attention elsewhere in the region. The Seattle City Council unanimously voted earlier this month to oppose the $1.8 billion distillery planned for the banks of the Columbia southeast of Longview. Working its way through the regulatory system, this plant would take methane (natural gas) and convert it into methanol (wood alcohol) for export to China, where it would be chemically manipulated into plastics.
The Seattle council’s stance against the Kalama facility is part of a broader reaction to President Trump’s repudiation of the Paris climate accords. West Coast cities and states on the front lines of sea-level rise and acidifying seawater are understandably anxious to begin ramping back on fossil-fuel use. Natural gas is a clean and abundant fuel, but also a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right when it escapes in between wellheads and end users. In addition, more common greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is created during methanol conversion, transportation of the finished wood alcohol, and its conversion into plastic.
Estimates vary, but around 90 full-time jobs will be created by the Kalama plant — insignificant by Seattle standards but a fairly big deal in Southwest Washington, where the economy chronically under-performs the metro areas it is wedged between. It’s appropriate to seek good-paying industrial jobs for the area. However, it’s also appropriate to carefully examine proposals to make certain they don’t harm other industries and regional values. Lower Columbia residents know all too well how 20th century industrialization of the river decimated our local fishing industry, for example.
In a helpful overview (tinyurl.com/Kalama-Methanol), Sightline Institute cites project documents that show the plant creating up to 3.6 million metric tons of methanol per year, whereas the largest methanol plant now in existence — in Iran — makes about 2 million tons a year. A facility on this scale would create a number of noticeable impacts and risks in the form of water withdrawals, steam and diesel particulate pollution, and increased danger from tanker traffic and earthquake exposure, according tot Sightline’s analysis.
From our local standpoint, there is little obvious upside to the Kalama proposal. By bolstering a nearby economy, it conceivably might result in a few more visits to the coast. It’s possible the three to six methanol tankers per month transiting to China might sometimes anchor in the estuary and spend money in Astoria. And we all use plastic, much of which China exports to us.
On the downside, the facility would place up to 72 million gallons of methanol on water-saturated soil in a region subject to intense earthquakes — spilled methanol that could poison the river and float downstream to us. The facility’s routine operations would, according to Sightline, generate five times more diesel-particulate pollution than allowed under state guidelines for air toxics. It would use 5 million gallons of water a day, sending much of it into the air in the form of a steam plumes longer than Mount St. Helens’ height a quarter of the time and longer than Alaska’s Mount Denali’s height 12 percent of the time.
There have always been, and probably will always be, promoters desiring to use Columbia River resources without much effort to be good neighbors. The Kalama plant, promising Chinese plastic in return for significant negative consequences for the Lower Columbia, hasn’t yet passed the sniff test as something that gives back more than it takes.