Our Voices, Our Waterfront: Melissa Malott

TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront. This month’s feature: Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay. Melissa Malott relocated to Tacoma from Madison, Wisconsin, 14 months ago to take the helm of Citizens for […]

TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront.
This month’s feature: Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Melissa Malott relocated to Tacoma from Madison, Wisconsin, 14 months ago to take the helm of Citizens for a Healthy Bay as its executive director. In Wisconsin, she had served as the county assistant on clean water and sustainability and had directed the water program for Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental nonprofit, working on issues such as polluted runoff, Great Lakes restoration, and groundwater conservation programs.melissa-malott
Last fall as a newcomer to Tacoma, she almost immediately found Citizens for a Healthy Bay in the midst of the many complex issues that arose from the pending methanol plant project for the Tacoma tideflats. A lawyer by training, Malott sees her role as helping CHB identify solutions to achieve and sustain clean water for Commencement Bay, which she believes is a key component to a healthy, thriving community.

Q: What have been key moments for you since arriving in July 2015?
A: I had plans for strengthening Citizens for a Healthy Bay’s internal structures and outreach. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the word “methanol”, where I was and what I was doing. Then very suddenly on Sept. 18, 2015, the project plans doubled in size, and our work shifted dramatically.

Q: What have you found in Tacoma that you did not expect?
A: The number of changes the community is going through—its comfort with its blue collar past, what its economic and cultural future is in this time and place, and where/when/how the community engages in decisions for future projects. I believe the methanol conversations, although contentious, ultimately brought community members a feeling of being more empowered and engaged not only in Tacoma’s future but in also being a part of the global dialogue on climate change, plastics, and fracking—and the feeling that what Tacoma decides can have an impact on those things. In this one project, people saw their chance to play a role in global problems that can often seem unsolvable. This motivated a lot of people to become involved.

Q: What might people be surprised to learn about you?
A: That I am sympathetic to community decision makers. Since 2014’s first proposal for the methanol plant, we now have much more science about methane emissions and more information about the climate. The “Thin Green Line” effort (just say no to fossil fuel distribution passing through communities on the west coast on its way to Asia) has also caught on. Decision-makers thought they were doing the right thing prior to this new information. I fully understand their frustration because they were complying with legal requirements. They thought they were doing something the environmental community and others would be happy with and were totally surprised with the unwelcoming reaction they received.

Q: In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing Tacoma decision-makers today?
A: Determining, one, what the city’s vision for its future is; and two, figuring out how to implement it. Before that, I believe the community needs to deal with the negativity from the methanol backlash so that people feel that they will be heard going forward. The community needs to understand the point of view of business and decision-makers; business and decision-makers need to listen and recognize the point of view of community members. Once we heal, then we can come together.

Q What are some of the critical lessons that you learned from the recent methanol debate?
A: Stakeholders really want the same things—a sustainable environment, figuring out what the new projects will be to replace those involving coal and oil, a balance between the enormous economic opportunity that the port provides and a thriving community.
We (CHB) served as a scientific and unbiased information hub, a tracker of project developments and a translator of information to the public so that they felt informed. We fact-checked and corrected published information from both sides of the debate. Because we take into consideration issues of the port, citizens, tribes, and the city, I feel we have a unique duty to help determine the vision and the pathway to get to it. We opposed the methanol proposal based on the company putting it forward, not on the science involved. They did not communicate with this community, even after promising to do so. We have taken heat from our opposition and lost some financial support. Others have found that they can disagree with us and still support us. Some activists believe we are aligned with industry; some industries believe we are aligned with activists. We have learned that we walk a knife edge. There are some stakeholders who do not want any others to play a role in such matters.

Q: What has Tacoma learned from this messy process?
A: That simply following the law on public process is not enough. That people are now interested in what our vision of the future is. That we have to listen to each other. That when there is a vacuum of information, bad things can happen. That those with an opposing view are not bad people. That we need to get past these false dichotomies so that we can talk about the future and what changes we need to make now to get there.

Q: What needs to happen next with the proposed Liquid Natural Gas plant project?
A: We have urged Puget Sound Energy to counter the vacuum of information about it, to get the facts out. For example, it took a while for the public to understand the proposed plant will not be using the Hylebos Waterway as initially expected.

Q: What is the central question the community now asks about Commencement Bay?
A: For me, it is who we want to be. Is it a community that fights over each issue and tries to one-up each other or a community that shoots for the moon with ambitious goals? The opportunity in front of us to protect and build on what has gone before with our waterfront is bigger than any of us can imagine.
The deep water port is a gem with its unique location and rail lines. It can serve as more than a place to look at the water with family and friends. It is also an economic engine bringing food and products to other places. To create a vibrant future of the bay, there need to be open hearts and minds. Even if we don’t get it right or perfect, we’ll have an incredible future for ourselves and our children. When we think of what needs to happen with Commencement Bay sustainability, it is really more about culture than process or legal systems. The culture is changing, and legal structures never keep up with culture. Could we become a clean energy hub? Could we manufacture and ship component parts for the windmill industry in Montana and Asia? Tapping into innovators, Tacoma could be attractive to entrepreneurial businesses because of its lower financial entry point. It is easier for business to try something here—to take a risk.