This article discusses why we have no reason to fear for the safety of our community if we build the methanol plant.
Put simply, we have regulations for a reason, let’s use them. But really, the process of making methanol is extremely safe, and allowing them to build the plant here is safer than alternatives.
What Can Go Wrong
First, worst-case scenario. I can only think of a few:
- Massive explosions as somehow oxygen gets where it isn’t supposed to be in sufficient quantities to cause an explosion.
- Industrial-scale leaks of input or output chemicals, or byproducts.
Let’s look at the fallout of these two:
- An explosion would make a loud noise and perhaps kill a few plant workers. The firefighters will put their lives at risk. But consider this: Even the Chernobyl disaster only killed 62 people.
- Leaks of the chemicals involved. Let’s list them:
- Natural Gas would dissipate in the air. We would have slightly higher levels.
- The Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide would also dissipate in the air.
- Methanol is highly miscible and if we had an industrial spill, it would probably be gone within two days or a few weeks. Treatment of methanol spills or fires is “add a lot of water”. There is a ton of water right there in Commencement Bay.
I think everyone can agree that the fallout of worst-case scenarios is really not that severe.
How to mitigate the risk
- Make sure the latest safety standards are used.
- Inspect the plant regularly by a third party
- Hold the plant accountable
The first two are rather obvious. The third party that does the inspection should be a private contractor which is hired by the city or state. The plant should be taxed for the cost of inspection, but the inspector should not be hired by the plant or in any way influenced by it. We already have a really decent system for doing food inspections, and it works pretty well. We just need more of the same, with a higher degree of professionalism and higher salaries.
Holding the plant accountable is rather easy: Make them buy disaster insurance. Safety inspections by the state are one thing, but safety inspections by insurance companies are entirely different. See, the insurance company will raise rates if the plant isn’t using every little thing that will reduce risk.History of Safety
I haven’t seen any accidents at any methanol plant, and this methanol plant will be even safer and more efficient than all the others. The only types of accidents I see involving methanol are people welding methanol tanks where there is still methanol vapor inside. Obviously, this is a bad idea and people die when it explodes. Natural gas is well-understood.
Keep in mind that none of these chemicals are combustible in the absence of oxygen. Without oxygen, no fire, no explosion. Oxygen is part of the process but only in the form of water. If there was a crack that developed that allowed oxygen where it doesn’t belong, then we would have a leak because the chemicals are kept at higher pressure and temperature. At worst, we’ll have a flamethrower.
Balancing Risk and Reward
In all things, consider why the Chinese want a methanol plant here at all. China has a huge pollution problem. It is literally killing their people and ruining their country. Even the communists know it is a problem. The reason why they have a huge problem is because their economy is entirely based on coal. Hence, why China has been so active in North Africa and Iraq trying to tap into their oil supply. Now, we could send natural gas to them, but it is expensive and more dangerous. They are moving operations here because natural gas is cheap and plentiful, and methanol is safer to ship than natural gas.
By building the plant in Tacoma, we will be sparing perhaps millions of Chinese and helping them clean up their environment. All the while, we will not be polluting our own environment, and creating jobs here in America, in Tacoma.
One other risk: War. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because we refused to trade with them the critical resources they needed to build their economy. We did it because the Japanese were abusing the Chinese and Koreans, who were our allies and who we promised to protect. Our trade with Japan was contingent on them living peacefully with their neighbors. They had a choice, and they chose to attack.
China is in a similar situation, except China is not quite like the Japanese and we already have a trade policy with them. They need things we have, and we can either compromise and ensure continued peace through trade, or we can refuse and give them the option of something less civil.
I would like China to know that at least here in Tacoma, and perhaps the entire Pacific Northwest, we are open for trade, and we welcome the Chinese as brothers and sisters. We have a dark history of persecuting Chinese immigrants here in Tacoma, and I think this is a good way to tell them we are done with the old ways.
Finally, the value of a life: We talk about the possibility of people dying. It’s a real risk. Even if we sit around and do nothing, people will die. I don’t mean to cheapen human life, but I mean to put it into perspective. Suppose we lose five lives building the plant, and there is an accident which kills 20 people every hundred years. I think this is way beyond any potential loss of life. I would support the project if it meant it saves an equal or greater number of lives. Right now, the Chinese people are dying because of pollution. Anything we can do to help them clean up their environment and their economy is saving lives. The only reason we live in a place with such a pristine and clean environment as this is because we were willing to build those factories and chemical plants that gave us those things that let us live cleaner lives, even though people died making them and people died working there. We traded those lives for the lives we would have lost if we stayed with the old ways of doing things.