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Hundreds turn out for public hearing on proposed Newport silicon smelter

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 30, 2017

NEWPORT, Wash. – Plans to build a $325 million silicon smelter south of town drew a large crowd to the Newport High School gym Wednesday night.

Despite the promise of 150 jobs, many local residents spoke out against the proposal, raising concerns about truck traffic, property values and potential impact on air quality.

“I feel like I’ve been blindsided,” said Barb Cottrell, who owns 10 acres west of Newport. “This is my dream home. I’m all for development, but at what cost?”

The meeting was put on by HiTest Silicon, which bought 186 acres near the Washington-Idaho border in September.

The company would ship silica sand from a BC mine to the site. The smelter would produce high quality silicon for eventual use in solar panels and other products, said Jayson Tymko, HiTest Silicon’s president.

During a 2 1/2-hour meeting, he and other officials assured the crowd that the smelter won’t be built unless it passes rigorous state, federal and local reviews. At least six to 12 months of permitting lie ahead of the smelter, he said.

The Washington state Department of Health also will conduct a study of potential impacts.

With an expected output of 320,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the smelter would be Washington’s 15th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, though company officials say the silicon’s eventual use in solar panels will offset the carbon emissions.

A report from the company’s consultant also said the stack will emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide – components in smog and acid rain.

“Tonight is just the beginning of public comment,” said Tim Thompson, a consultant for HiTest Silicon. “We want to be a long-term neighbor. We will meet and exceed federal standards.”

Several hundred people filled the gym. They listened to a presentation by HiTest, then asked questions.

“Why aren’t you putting this facility in Canada?” said Rick Cramer, a resident of Sagle, Idaho.

HiTest chose Northeast Washington because of its cheap electricity and abundant supply of woodchips, Tymko said. Both are needed for silicon production.

Some of the opposition came from neighbors of the proposed smelter, which would be built near rural residences. HiTest bought property formerly owned by the Pend Oreille County Public Utilities District. If the smelter is built, it would become the utility’s largest customer.

John Carlson, a HiTest official, said the company is looking at ways to reduce glare and light from the plant at night. Company officials also are conducting a study to project how the 150-foot-tall stack would look from various points around town.

Not everyone spoke against the smelter. Martha Winje, a physician’s assistant from Newport, said she’s confident the regulatory process will produce a good project.

“I speak for the portion of the community who is very interested in the revitalization of our community,” she said. “I’m very interested in our downtown growing.”

Wages at the smelter would range from $40,000 to $100,000 per year, Tymko said. The opening is probably more than two years away.

A number of Idaho residents, including state Rep. Heather Scott, attended the meeting.

“There’s a number of really unhappy citizens,” she said. “We are downwind … our property values are affected.”

Washington state officials will be working closely with Idaho officials during the regulatory process, said Grant Pfeifer, the Washington Department of Ecology’s eastern regional director.

“I can tell from the size of the crowd, this is an important issue to all of you,” he said.

HiTest is willing to conduct additional meetings with local residents, said Thompson, the consultant. Citizens will also have opportunities to weigh in during the regulatory process.

This story was updated on No. 30 to include additional information on the smelter’s air emissions.

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