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Smelter opponents challenge sale of public land to HiTest

A pickup parked in Newport, Washington, contains a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)
A pickup parked in Newport, Washington, contains a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

Residents fighting a Northeast Washington silicon smelter are challenging the sale of public land to the Alberta company trying to build the smelter.

The Pend Oreille County Public Utility District sold 186 acres south of Newport to HiTest Sand Inc. last year for the smelter. Opponents contend the sale of 14 acres in the transaction failed to follow state regulations for disposal of public property, making the entire $300,000 deal illegal.

Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter and Responsible Growth* Northeast Washington sent a letter to the utility district this week, asking for PUD officials to void the land sale within 30 days.

“We are giving the PUD and the other folks involved every opportunity to address the problem. If not, we’ll be doing it for them in court,” Norman Semanko, attorney for Citizens Against Newport Silicon Smelter, said in a phone message.

Kenna Tornow, the utility district’s spokeswoman, declined to comment Tuesday.

If the $325 million silicon smelter is built, it would become the rural utility’s largest customer. HiTest officials have said the smelter would run continuously, employing about 150 people and producing about 60,000 metric tons of high-grade silicon annually.

But the proposed smelter location – in a rural residential neighborhood south of Newport – has been controversial. Opponents say they don’t want to live near the 150-foot stack, which would release 320,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually and pollutants that contribute to smog and acid rain.

HiTest has not yet applied for any permits to build or operate the smelter.

“There is broad opposition to the smelter in the community, and right now, the only thing that can be challenged is the sale of the land,” said Walter Tanner, a Gonzaga University law student working with Responsible Growth*Northeast Washington.

Washington’s law has specific requirements for the purchase and sale of public property. Tanner said the PUD erred when it bought 14 acres of land from Pend Oreille County in August, bundling it with other properties for sale to HiTest a few weeks later.

“The utility district shouldn’t be in the business of buying real estate for prospective customers,” Tanner said.

In addition, the PUD failed to follow the proper procedure for selling the 14 acres, he said.

Utility district officials should have declared the parcel surplus, which would have triggered a public notification process before the sale, or required utility customers to vote on the disposal of the property, Tanner said.

“They knew what the procedure was to declare it surplus, because they did that with the other three parcels” sold to HiTest, he said.

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