Smelter naysayers dominate EIS hearing

By Susan Drumheller
Reader Contributor

Hundreds of people turned out to raise heartfelt, serious questions about plans for a silicon smelter in Newport Wednesday evening, challenging Washington State regulators to justify permitting a project that could damage the health, the environment and the economy of the area.

The questions loomed large, and the large crowd expressed great skepticism that they would ever get satisfying answers. 

Darren Holmes, a Kalispel Tribe council member, said he was quizzed by his 14-year-old daughter: “What’s it going to do to our air? … Are people going to get cancer down the road? Is the stuff going to end up in the water?”

“I can’t answer her questions,” Holmes said. “I don’t have a whole lot of confidence in this scoping. PacWest hasn’t provided a whole lot of details on this project.”

The Newport hearing was the second of four public scoping hearings on the smelter proposal. During the scoping phase of the project, state regulators take input on what they should study when conducting the environmental review of the project, and suggestions for what might be done to lessen the impacts. 

Bleachers of the Newport High School were nearly filled with between 300 and 400 people, including many Bonner County residents. About 100 people signed up to comment, prompting the Department of Ecology to add a half hour to the hearing. 

However, after two hours of testimony, only one person spoke in favor of the project, because it would provide much-needed jobs. 

The proposed silicon smelter would produce up to 73,000 tons of silicon per year and employ an estimated 150 people. PacWest Silicon, a subsidiary of the Canadian company HiTest Sands, plans to produce the metal by combining company-supplied quartz rock with wood chips and coal or charcoal at extremely high temperatures. Silicon is used in a myriad of electronic and household products, photovoltaic solar cells and steel. 

While PacWest has pledged to ensure the smelter meets the strictest safety and environmental standards, critics are concerned that the smelter will be granted greater leeway on toxic air emissions because the baseline air quality is relatively pure. 

A few speakers raised the issue of PM2.5 pollution – tiny particulates can lodge deeply into the lungs.

“None of that stuff can be trapped, not by bag houses, not by filters,” said Jim Chandler, vice chairman of the opposition group Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter (CANSS). “My wife has lung cancer, and … now we’re looking at stuff we can’t filter. Now we’re looking at what steps Ecology is going to take to mitigate something that can’t be mitigated.”

Norm Semanko, attorney for CANSS, echoed complaints about the lack of adequate information available for citizens to evaluate the project and for DOE to evaluate it. The crowd hollered their appreciation when he promised legal action.

The proposed smelter would be located on 188 acres on the Idaho-Washington border just southeast of Newport, and opponents from Idaho are concerned that prevailing winds blow to the east, directing the bulk of the air pollutants into Idaho. Idaho, however, has no regulatory authority over the Washington-based project.

That’s a point Idaho District 1 Rep. Heather Scott raised at the hearing, requesting a review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which would give Idahoans more clout in the process. Under the state process, “You’re not accountable to Idaho,” she said.

Recognizing potential downwind impacts, the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) is holding a scoping hearing today in Priest River. The hearing will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Priest River Event Center, 5299 U.S. Highway 2. A webinar-based scoping hearing is also planned for Sept. 27. The deadline for comments on the scoping phase of the project is Oct. 26. 

Once the environmental review is complete, the state will issue a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is expected next summer. The Washington DOE will then hold additional hearings to share the draft, and give the public an opportunity to provide additional information and feedback. A final EIS is expected by the end of 2019. 

Sandi Funk of Coolin, Idaho, gave an impassioned appeal to regulators to consider the people of the community – and not the desires and needs of PacWest; “Who in this room would truly benefit in any way by the existence of this polluting smelter?” she asked. “At what cost to you, to us, to planet Earth?”

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