By Lyndsie Kiebert
There were more questions than answers at Wednesday night’s Newport smelter panel discussion.
Local and statewide experts took the Panida stage to shed some light on the proposed silicon smelter project in Newport, spearheaded by Canadian company HiTest Sands. If approved, the smelter plans to use quartz, coal and woodchips to produce silicon.
HiTest representatives were expected to join the discussion but backed out just a few weeks ago, said Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, who organized the event.
Rognstad said his goal for the evening was to help attendees learn “how we can engage the issue.” Rognstad said he was openly opposed to the smelter.
The panel answered questions voiced by mediators Ben Olson and Chris Bessler, as well as from the audience. Questions pertained mostly to possible pollutants in air and water, the Washington Department of Ecology’s (DOE) permitting process and HiTest’s estimated projection of overall waste, traffic and other potential impacts on the region.
One roadblock that panelists mentioned time and time again — particularly Washington DOE Eastern Regional Director Grant Pfeifer — is the lack of an official application from HiTest.
“I wish I knew more about the proposal,” Pfeifer said after a question about specific quantities of possible waste coming from the smelter. “Like most of you here, I’m waiting to see something more definitive than a PowerPoint presentation.”
Pfeifer referred to a PowerPoint that HiTest showed to a packed Newport High School gym in November. It displayed simplified information about their silicon production process as well as similar facilities around the world. HiTest also spoke about potential jobs they will offer locals if the project moves forward.
Right now the Washington DOE is waiting for HiTest’s official permit application, which could arrive any time. Until then, answering specific questions will be difficult, Pfeifer said.
Deane Osterman, executive director of natural resources for the Kalispel Tribe, said the public needs to push HiTest to gather environmental data directly from the proposed smelter site.
“We need to understand what the meteorological data is pertaining to the site,” he said, noting that an on-site meteorological station used to be required for one year in order to create accurate input for state-reviewed air models. Now, companies are allowed to use predictive data from off-site sources. “We want to eliminate as many variables as possible, or we won’t trust the outcomes.”
Michael Naylor, who represented the non-profit Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter on the panel, said his group has been working to find answers to more specific questions. He said they’ve also become more and more suspicious of local government, especially the Pend Oreille County commissioners.
Naylor said one member of CANSS recently visited a Mississippi smelter HiTest and the commissioners have been “touting” as a great example of a functioning silicon plant. He said the photos they collected are not flattering to HiTest’s cause.
“It’s not the very rosy picture that HiTest wants us to believe,” he said.
Director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper Shannon Williamson emphasized the importance on public comment during projects like the proposed smelter. She reminded the audience that the DOE has the ability to reject the forthcoming permit if HiTest doesn’t meet environmental standards.
“It is not an automatic yes. It is not a forgone conclusion that this thing will be permitted,” she said. “That’s where all of your interaction and your advocacy become really important.”
Williamson said she and Idaho Conservation League’s Matt Nykiel will do everything they can to notify locals about the public comment period after HiTest submits their application, and to help write informed, thoughtful comments for people to submit when the time comes.