Localizing Methanol in Kalama

Kalama sits aging on the waterfront of the Columbia River. Though the paint chips off some of its old buildings, this quaint, picturesque town in Washington is warm and inviting, with tourist-centric antique shops and Steamboat rides.

Part of the town’s charm is its tiny population, at 2,347 people as of 2014. Surrounded by mountains and the river, Kalama is encased in a nook of rain forests and wildlife. Sunbathing families host picnics with friends at the port beach, where parents compete in volleyball matches and children splash in water games. Locals spend their days casting fishing lines in getaway boats.

But Kalama may soon face a threat to its longstanding secluded nature. At the Port of Kalama, natural gas could soon be converted to methanol via a methanol plant facility that backers say could generate full-time jobs and local revenue. Some citizens and business owners, however, oppose the plant due to potentially negative economic and environmental impacts.

Methanol is a clear liquid produced for commercial and industrial purposes. The plant, which would export the methanol overseas, is still in the planning process and hasn’t been built.

The plant was first proposed in March of 2014 by Northwest Innovation Works. The construction plans require local, state, and federal permits and reviews to be completed before plant construction or operation can begin. In June, the plant received both a shoreline permit and a water quality certification from the Washington Department of Ecology.

Northwest Innovation Works chose the Port of Kalama to build the plant because its land is zoned for industrial use by Cowlitz County. It is also large enough to support the facility and its workers, with water and natural gas resources readily available. The port owns the land and existing tenants include a lone manufacturing plant and other industrial facilities.

The building of the methanol plant will also need a new natural gas pipeline. Known as the Kalama Lateral Project, the pipeline construction will be implemented by Williams Pipeline.

Northwest Innovation Works said the methanol facility will provide clean methanol for global resources for clean methanol manufacturing. The company has assured local residents that by implementing innovative technologies, the plant will protect the environment, decrease emission rates, reduce waste content, and reuse valuable resources.

The company also says the plant will create 688 total jobs once it’s operational— including 192 direct and 496 indirect and induced jobs.

The Port of Kalama, the city of Kalama, Cowlitz County and Cowlitz County Fire District 5 all support NWIW’s plans to build the plant.

However, some Kalama locals are against the plant, including environmentalists and organized groups of citizens. They fear both the increase in population, as well as the advancement of technology and modernization of the surrounding landmarks and buildings.

Judy Swain, a founding member of the environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper, is a local business owner and resident opposed to the plant. Columbia Riverkeeper is dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Columbia River and its water quality. Swain, who spearheads some of the local citizen meetings in Kalama, said about 300 people regularly attend to vocalize their opposition towards the plant.

“It’s dangerous, or there is the possibility of it being dangerous,” Swain said. “They (NWIW) are talking about running the pipelines under nearby railroads, and even underneath I-5. If any accident happens, at any magnitude, we don’t have our means of industry, we don’t have the freeway, and we don’t have Kalama.”

(A homemade sign opposing the methanol plant hangs in the window of Judy Swains’ business. Photo by Halle Crum.)
(“No Methanol” sign hangs above the entrance of Judy Swain’s antique shop. Photo by Halle Crum.)

Katrin Cameron, another local business owner and longstanding resident of Kalama, also opposes the plant’s construction. Increased modernization to the town, an influx of new technologies, buildings, and businesses, and the disruption of a rural, serene riverside area by an advanced, modern facility are some of the concerns Cameron detailed.

“I’m worried about what the plant’s going to do to the environment and the air quality, but I also worry about its effect on our property values,” Cameron said. “Kalama’s going to become an ugly town, with factory plumes and smog. Who wants to live somewhere like that?”

(A sketch of the proposed facility. Image Credit: Northwest Innovative Works)

Northwest Innovation Works argues that both economic and environmental benefits will be derived from the plant, said Karla Wachter, director of the company’s marketing department.

“Once operational, the facility will employ nearly 200 full-time managers and workers, providing family wages, plus benefits,” Wachter said.

The company has created a partnership with Lower Columbia College, as well as the SW WA WorkSource, Wachter said. The partnership involves a student and employee based program to train 20 Cowlitz County residents to work within the plant. Minimum wage will also be paid to the trainees during their training.

“We will select 20 Cowlitz County residents and pay for training in a custom program we have developed with LCC (the college). Upon completion, they will have an opportunity for employment with our facility,” Wachter said.

She also said the average salary will be $71,000 per year, “which is $10,000 above Cowlitz County’s median family income and $24,000 higher than the median annual wage in the county.”

Other plant backers also argue the facility will benefit the surrounding environment. Liz Newman, the marketing and communications manager of the Port of Kalama, said that the purpose of the plant is to replace outdated means of methanol production with a newer, cleaner process.

“The project will produce methanol from natural gas through a very clean process that replaces previous production from coal,” said Newman. “Methanol is the basis for many synthetic materials we use every day. Some examples are synthetic clothing, wind turbines, kayaks, car parts, and medical devices.”

When asked to address the environmental concerns that would come with the plant’s construction and operation, Wachter, the Northwest Innovation Works marketing director, said:

“We are an industrial facility so that will have a local environmental impact. That said, we are implementing clean technology to significantly reduce the impact while having a positive net impact on global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The company also acknowledged the plant’s potential contribution to Kalama’s already heavily industrialized port area, including existing train stations, logging mill, and a Benzyne treatment plant. But Wachter said the future methanol plant would not contribute additional pollutants.

“We [NWIW] are working hard to set a new standard for industrial manufacturing,” Wachter said. “By deep investments in clean technology- Ultra-Low-Emissions and Zero Liquid Discharge, we hope to raise the bar for all industry in the Pacific Northwest.”

The Ultra-Low-Emissions technology lowers emission levels of plant-emitted pollutants, as defined by the NWIW project summary. Zero Liquid Discharge technology, on the other hand, will both reuse and recycle the facility’s wastewater.

But some residents are not convinced by the company’s arguments. Swain, the founding Columbia Riverkeeper member, is most concerned about the security and safety of the plant, no matter the technological efficiencies.

“If the methanol plant were to experience any sort of malfunctions, the people of Kalama wouldn’t know what to do,” Swain said. “They aren’t equipped or trained to handle some sort of chemical or environmental disaster.”

As for other residents who oppose the plant, they hope to keep their rural, port-side town with a view unchanged.

“We live in Kalama, because it’s beautiful, it’s clean, it’s isolated,” said Cameron, the local business owner.

(Pins opposing the plant, available free to the public. Photo by reporter Halle Crum.)
(Informational handouts usually distributed at Columbia Riverkeeper meetings. Photo by Halle Crum.)