A Musical in Five Acts
Miss live music and theater? I do, too. As I pondered how to share the thrill—the utter joy—of the recent victory over one of the biggest fossil fuel giants to threaten the Columbia River, songs from the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” played in the background. For my five- and eight-year-old daughters, an initial curiosity with “Hamiliton” blossomed into a full-blown obsession during the pandemic: songs like “Aaron Burr, Sir” and “Washington on Your Side” play on repeat.
Which brings me to this article. I wrote a musical to capture a stunning victory for our climate and the Columbia: Washington state denied a key permit for a proposal to build the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refinery. Seven years of community organizing, litigation, and coalition-building culminated in the state’s massive blow to the refinery and pipeline proposal. Well done, team!
This musical will premiere, and close, in your imagination. The budget: infinite. Conjure the world’s greatest actors; experience singers that move you to tears; gape as dancers use their bodies to evoke the mighty Columbia; and visualize costumes and sets worthy of Broadway. We’re talking “Lion King” meets “Phantom of the Opera” meets “Wicked.” Cue the orchestra.
Act 1: A Small Town
Scene 1: (Setting: May 2014. Kalama, WA, population 2,600. The curtain rises. A spotlight drenches a lone fisherman, John Flynn, clad in flannel, blue jeans, and a ball cap).
JOHN: During the peak of spring and fall Chinook, bank fishermen stand shoulder-to-shoulder just upriver from the Port of Kalama office to the mouth of the Cowlitz River, all the way to the Longview Bridge. There’ll be rows and rows and rows of boats anchored up in hog lines, trying to catch a fish. (The spotlight shifts to Sally Keely, mathematics professor and Kalama resident.)
SALLY: We can access Portland’s eclectic urban scene in the morning, kayak among the herons in the afternoon, and watch the sunset from our mountain perch in the evening. Cambria, my daughter, just said that at night she dreams about living in the lush forest among the mighty trees, and we do!
Scene 2: (Setting: August 2015. People in suits crowd the lawn at the Port of Kalama overlooking the Columbia. Gov. Inslee arrives at the ribbon-cutting ceremony announcing the proposed methanol refinery and pipeline. Two bald eagles perch in a tree nearby.)
GOV. INSLEE: This refinery will be a model for the rest of the world.
EAGLE 1: Hey, what's the Governor doing promoting this fracked gas project?
EAGLE 2: Oh, he's going to regret this in a few years.
ACT 2: Meth-a-what?
(Setting: Spring 2016. A news reporter and camera crew interview Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel.)
REPORTER: A company called Northwest Innovation Works proposes building the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refinery. What is methanol and how does the company plan to use it?
BRETT: Methanol is a chemical used to make plastic or burned as a fuel. Northwest Innovation Works plans to ship the methanol to Asia.
REPORTER: The project backers claim the refinery is a win-win for our climate. Why all the fuss?
BRETT: A single refinery could consume more fracked gas than all other industrial uses in Washington combined. This translates to 5 million metric tons of carbon pollution each year for the next 40 years. Bottomline: This proposal is a disaster for our climate—and the Columbia.
ACT 3: Grassroots Activism Rocks
Scene 1: (Setting: April 2017. On the banks of the Columbia River in Kalama.)
(A high-energy, modern dance routine, led by Conservation Director Dan Serres and former Senior Organizer Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, captures the passion and creativity of activists participating in an aquatic adaptation of the People’s Climate March, a nationwide climate day of action. Two canoes piloted by the Cowlitz and Portland All Nations canoe families enter the Columbia’s swift waters, represented by dancers in every shade of blue. The tribal canoes, followed by fishing boats and other small craft, carry signs promoting climate action.)
Scene 2: (Setting: July 2019. On the banks of the Kalama River.)
DYLAN HAVIV (10 years old): I think it’s really dumb. I don’t want a big, giant methanol plant in my backyard. And I don’t think anyone wants a big, giant methanol plant in their backyard. Why isn’t it super easy to just say no? Everyone in my generation knows that the age of fossil fuels is over. Money should not be the bottomline. Humans should be the bottomline. And it’s just kind of sad that we’re having to tell the adults that.
ACT 4: Inslee Sees the Light
Scene 1: (Setting: September 2017. Columbia Riverkeeper office.)
MILES JOHNSON (Columbia Riverkeeper Senior Staff Attorney): We won in court! The Washington Pollution Control Hearings ruled in favor of our coalition! The state must redo its environmental review for the refinery and pipeline to consider the full climate impact.
Scene 2: (Setting: May 7, 2019. Gov. Inslee stands center stage at a podium to deliver an address after signing a bill banning hydraulic fracking for oil and natural gas. Two familiar eagles perch in a tree.)
GOV. INSLEE: I cannot in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma or a methanol production facility in Kalama. In the early days of both projects, I said they could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as we transition to cleaner energy sources, but I am no longer convinced that locking in these multidecadal infrastructure projects is sufficient to accomplishing what’s necessary.
EAGLE 1: Well it sure took him long enough to see the light!
EAGLE 2: I called this years ago.
Scene 3: (Setting: November 2020. Zoom.)
MILES: We won in court again! A federal judge ruled in favor of our coalition! The federal government must redo its environmental review for the refinery and pipeline to consider the full climate impact.
Act 5: You Saved Kalama from a Calamity!
NARRATOR: Over 25,000 people signed petitions asking Gov. Inslee and the Washington Dept. of Ecology to reject the Kalama methanol refinery. In videos fueled by social media, through “kayaktivism” events, and at rallies across the Pacific Northwest, people rose up to demand action: protect our climate and the Columbia from the Kalama methanol refinery.
Scene 1: (Setting: Fall 2020. A cozy apartment. Kate Murphy, community organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper, sits on her couch, a ukulele in hand. Kate strums the ukulele, hums, and bursts into song, channeling the voice of Joni Mitchell.)
Well Kalama’s real pretty on the river side, If you haven’t seen it yet, you should take a ride. The rivers flow by on the north and the west, The people of Kalama are truly the best. But Kalama has a problem they can’t solve alone, We have to stop it from becoming a disaster zone. Northwest Innovation Works has a bad plan, To build the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol plant. Let’s save Kalama from a calamity, Let’s work together, to save the birds and bees, Protect the water and the air they breathe, To keep for all the critters and our families.
Hear Kate Murphy's complete rendition of the Kalama Calamity song:
Scene 2: (Setting: January 19, 2021. A large computer screen. Washington Dept. of Ecology Director Laura Watson delivers a monologue.)
DIRECTOR WATSON: Today, the Washington Dept. of Ecology denied a shoreline conditional use permit for a proposed methanol facility in Kalama. This proposal has been the subject of intense interest and controversy, both because of its potential effect on the local economy and its potential environmental impacts. (The chorus breaks into Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” Celebrate good times, come on!)
Scene 3: (Setting: February 2021. The stage transforms into stacks of squares with an actor appearing in each— what we used to call the opening for “The Brady Bunch,” now known as life on Zoom. The virtual victory party!)
LINDA LEONARD: We did it! LINDA HORST: What an amazing ride. I can’t believe it. (The actors bursts into song: “We Saved Kalama From a Calamity!”
Read the full newsletter here: the formation of Comunidades; Snake River restoration opportunity; Yakama voices against Rye Development; and more.