Point / Counterpoint: The Hi-Test silicone smelter

Is the proposed silicone smelter good or bad for Sandpoint?

What’s a breath of clean air worth?

By Matt Nykiel
Reader Contributor

Just like our health, clean air is priceless. It’s worth a lot to know that our kids, grandparents and those most vulnerable among us are safe from toxic air pollutants. And our slice of North Idaho heaven wouldn’t be possible without clean air. Clean air draws visitors and businesses into our communities, and with it we enjoy crystal clear views of this beautiful part of Idaho.

Clean air is also something we have to fight for and demand from our leaders. And a new proposal for a silica smelter in Newport, Wash., is raising alarms and calling us to action. The smelter, proposed by Canadian company HiTest Sand, is the kind of industrial project that can have far-reaching impacts on our air and on our health, as prevailing winds would likely carry emissions from this smelter into Bonner and Boundary counties.

The pollution from this smelter would contain nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other toxic air pollutants, many of which are linked to an increased risk for asthma, lung disease, and environmental impacts like acid rain and regional haze.

Since October, the Idaho Conservation League has been in close contact with state agencies and HiTest itself, and we are concerned that despite HiTest’s best intentions, this smelter could damage air quality and health in North Idaho.

Our region is inherently vulnerable to bad air quality because of our geography and weather patterns, so we don’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to new pollution. Local weather patterns make our region vulnerable to air pollution, particularly in the winter when inversions, like the one two weeks ago, trap pollutants in a layer of stagnant air that can linger for days. In the 1990s, air quality was so bad in Sandpoint that the city instituted local rules needed to meet baseline standards set by the Clean Air Act.

There’s also the concerning fact that today, federal and state agencies are budget-strapped and lack the support to hold polluters to the rules on the books. The Environmental Protection Agency has lost 700 employees since the election of President Trump, and Trump has proposed further defunding the EPA by 31 percent. Because of this the EPA is far less able to assist states like Idaho and Washington with the funding, monitoring and technical expertise that would ensure the proposed smelter does not break the rules and pollute our air. Idaho and Washington environmental agencies alone simply don’t have the resources to properly enforce air quality permits and demand the most protective pollution controls from savvy industrial companies.

All this means that we must voice our concerns for our health and communities so that our leaders hear them loud and clear. As a baseline, HiTest should commit to collecting solid, site-specific air quality and weather data for at least one year before they ask the state of Washington for a permit. So we need to demand that our state environmental agencies step up and fight for our clean air and demand this data from HiTest.

Please visit https://bit.ly/newportsmelter to learn how to contact the Washington Department of Ecology and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and request HiTest collect and share this data.

Matt Nykiel is a Conservation Associate with the Idaho Conservation League.  His work includes protecting North Idaho’s clean air and water and advocating for clean, safe, and reliable energy.

Life is a series of trade-offs

By Herb Weins
Reader Contributor

There are many reasons why HiTest chose our area to build a smelter. Among those reasons are the availability of a viable ore body, cheap power and a willing workforce. It is about time. We have been exporting high-quality blue collar jobs out of the country for decades. There are some downsides to such enterprises, of course. Life is a series of trade-offs.

The landowners closest to the project don’t want to look at it. So? What do they think that the farmers and ranchers, used to solitude, thought when a housing project was built next door? A developer was receiving a considerable amount of negative feedback over his planned Spokane River housing development  from residents directly across the  river. They complained that their view would be ruined.  His reply shut down the debate when he simply stated: “What do you think the people on the other side of the river thought when you built YOUR development?” The bottom line is that if you never want your view to change, buy everything in your line of sight.

I understand that no one wants a huge polluter moving into the area. Neither do I. Detractors cite acid rain in Canada and a burning river in Ohio.  Actually, the Cuyahoga River caught fire 13 times. The last time was in 1969 which led to the Clean Water Act. Canada’s acid rain was caused by unregulated, pollution belching, factories and power plants in almost every town in the Rust Belt and on the Eastern Seaboard. That was the reason for the creation of the National Environmental Protection Agency. Washington’s SEPA has even more stringent regulations. This is not the Rust Belt. This is one modern smelter in the middle of basically nowhere.

People cite death stories from silicosis. Silicosis comes from breathing dust in many activities such as rock crushing, cement work, sandblasting and pottery. In industry, silicosis can occur from working near or in bag houses. Bag houses are basically large vacuum cleaners used to reduce particulate emissions. Since OSHA’s creation, new cases of silicosis have decreased by 93 percent. OSHA estimates that there are over two million workers exposed to silica in the mining, industrial and maritime industries. Michigan State University estimates that, along with undiagnosed cases, there are approximately 2,500-5,000 deaths from silicosis each year in the U.S. That  means that a worker has between a .125-percent and a .25-percent chance of dying from it. Most of those cases are from the mining industry. In 2016, OSHA introduced the new Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica regulation, reducing worker risk even further.

This smelter is supposedly similar to the United Silicon smelter near Reykjanesbaer, Iceland. That smelter had startup issues due mainly to lower than designed furnace temperatures. An environmental study of that facility was completed last summer by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research. Samples were taken in the plant, bag house,  and in the surrounding community. That study states that the Volatile Organic Compound level in the nearby village was 150 ug per cubic meter. An ug is one millionth of a gram. The VOC indoor air quality of a typical residence is between 100 and 250 ug per cubic meter.

The Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) emission results were also illuminating. The results and compounds found were virtually identical, according to the EPA, with a common wood stove. If the smelter’s stated nitrogen oxides and sulfuric oxides emissions bother you, let me give you some simplified statistics without getting too far into the weeds.

The last census states that 4.7 percent of Spokane County, 26.2 percent of Pend Oreille County and 33.5 percent of Bonner County residences list wood heat as their primary heating source. That is 15,130 wood stoves. Using an average of four cords of Tamarack used a year per stove, that is 302,600 tons of wood burnt each year. According to EPA statistics, that would be 424 tons of nitrogen oxides,  61 tons of sulfuric oxides and 110 tons of PAH. That is not counting how many households listed electricity as their primary heat source but really heat with wood. Pellet stoves emit five times more nitrogen oxides and 3.3 times more PAH than regular stoves.

Add all of this to the other pollution sources in the region and the smelter is really of little consequence. I like to compare its impact to a fart in a feedlot.

Herb Weins Graduated from Sandpoint High School. He attended NIC, is a military veteran, spent 20 years in the timber industry. Weins also worked 12 years in water treatment as a small business owner.

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