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$300 million silicon smelter plan promises jobs in Usk

OLYMPIA – A Canadian company will get state assistance to build a $300 million smelter in Usk that will make the silicon used in computer chips and solar panels.

The HiTest Sands Inc. facility will employ about 400 people during construction, estimated to take about two years. When completed, the Edmonton, Alberta-based company will employ about 170 full-time workers.

The company was awarded $300,000 in economic development assistance from the state Commerce Department for the project. The company selected Usk from among several sites in the United States and Canada it was considering for the new smelter, said Brian Bonlender, the Commerce Department director.

Qualifying for the economic assistance means the project will receive expedited permitting treatment from local agencies. But HiTest will have to meet all environmental standards, Bonlender said.

The $300,000 will assist with engineering costs associated with developing an 80-acre site in Usk adjacent to the Ponderay Newsprint Co., a paper mill that has announced its future is uncertain past 2016. The Pend Oreille Public Utilities District has begun making preparations if the mill closes or cuts back operations.

The mill, which employs about 140 people, is currently the utility’s largest customer.

Possibility of the mill’s closure “has been on the minds of people in the area for quite a while,” Bonlender said. “That’s another reason why this project is important.”

Because it would locate on land next to the mill, the smelter could take advantage of some existing infrastructure, he said. The smelter won’t make computer chips or solar panels but the basic silicon material other manufacturers use.

If HiTest should decide not to build the smelter after the economic assistance money is spent, or if it should build it and open it but shut it down within two years, state law has “clawback” provisions to recover the money, Bonlender said.

“As a leading innovator in their industry, HiTest shares our commitment to enabling the promise of the clean energy economy,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release announcing the award of state aid.

Silicon is derived from sand, which HiTest will ship in from a mine in Canada, department officials said. But it plans to use wood chips from local sources to generate heat needed for part of the smelting process.

The wood chips will come from forest thinning projects, which would have the added benefit of reducing wildfire risk. Supplying companies that manufacture silicon products with locally produced silicon also would reduce those companies’ carbon footprint, because the material is now shipped in from sources east of the Mississippi River or from Asia.

Tom Vaughn, HiTest’s vice president for U.S. operations, was quoted in the release as saying support from local business and government leaders, Inslee and state Reps. Shelly Short and Joel Kretz was key in the company’s decision to focus on the Usk site.


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