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Company prepares to move on Newport smelter’s environmental study

UPDATED: Thu., June 21, 2018

A Canadian company that wants to build a controversial silicon smelter near Newport says it’s ready to start the environmental review process.

PacWest Silicon CEO Jayson Tymko recently sent a four-page letter to the state Department of Ecology, describing the $325 million project, its projected workforce and pollution emissions. The smelter will almost certainly require a full-blown environmental impact statement, Tymko wrote in the letter.

State officials are reviewing the letter. They’ll decide whether it contains enough information to determine whether an environmental impact statement is needed for the project, said Brook Beeler, an Ecology Department spokeswoman. An EIS requires applicants to disclose anticipated impacts to the environment – including air, water quality, traffic and public health – and indicate how they plan to mitigate adverse effects.

If an EIS is required, the agency will kick off a public scoping process, allowing people to comment on what should be addressed in the study.

Meanwhile, citizens groups have challenged the sale of public land for a smelter site and the Kalispel Tribe is questioning $300,000 in state funds awarded to the company.

PacWest Silicon is a subsidiary of HiTest Sands of Alberta. The company owns a silica deposit near Golden, British Columbia. Northeast Washington’s low electricity prices attracted the company to Newport for the energy intensive smelting process.

PacWest plans to build the smelter on 186 acres south of town, adjacent to the Washington-Idaho border. Company officials say the smelter will create about 400 jobs during its construction, and employ up to 150 people once it is operating.

PacWest expects to produce 73,000 tons of silicon ingots per year, according to Tymko’s letter. Most raw materials, including silica sand and coal, would arrive by rail. Wood chips, also needed for the smelting process, would arrive by truck.

Some of the silicon would be used in solar panels, the letter said, offsetting the smelter’s greenhouse gas emissions. If the smelter is built, it would be Washington’s 15th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with an expected output of 320,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

During an EIS, the Ecology Department would ask for additional information about the silicon’s end use and possible carbon offsets, said Beeler, the agency spokeswoman.

The smelter has been divisive. Some local residents support the job creation and others raise concerns about air pollution and impacts on nearby rural neighborhoods. In Pend Oreille County, landowners have put up signs both in favor and opposition. Idaho residents also are following the issue because of the smelter’s proximity to their communities.

Two citizens groups recently filed a lawsuit challenging the sale of land owned by the Pend Oreille Public Utility District to HiTest for the smelter site. If the smelter is built, the utility would provide electricity for it.

The lawsuit says the utility and Pend Oreille County failed to follow proper procedures for the disposal of public land. The suit was filed in Spokane Superior Court by Responsible Growth*Northeast Washington, Citizens Against Newport Silicon Smelter and several private citizens.

The utility doesn’t comment on pending litigation, said Kenna Tornow, a spokeswoman for the Pend Oreille Public Utility District.

“The PUD will review the lawsuit and respond through legal process in order to protect and defend the PUD’s customers,” she said in an email.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians also has raised concerns about the smelter. Tribal officials say the state Department of Commerce erred in awarding a $300,000 grant to PacWest Silicon and should act to recover the money.

The $300,000 was from the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund. The grant was awarded through the Pend Oreille County Economic Development Commission to be spent in that county, according to a letter the tribe sent to Commerce Department Director Brian Bonlender.

However, PacWest Silicon appears to have submitted invoices for reimbursement for a $404,000 site feasibility study in Stevens County, where the company initially planned to build the smelter, said Deane Osterman, executive director for the tribe’s natural resources department.

PacWest wanted to build the smelter on the site of a defunct magnesium smelter at Addy in Stevens County. But the company couldn’t work out a deal to buy electricity from Avista, which supplies power to the Addy site.

“Avista was in conversations with HiTest Sands … but we were not able to meet their price needs,” Avista spokeswoman Debbie Simock said in an email. “The desired electric rate for the business would have resulted in the need for Avista to increase rates for our other electric customer to offset the lower price.”

HiTest also looked at a prospective smelter site in Usk and eventually purchased the land south of Newport.

Osterman said sloppy oversight by the state allowed the award to go through – for work apparently done in a different county.

“This kind of project demands a high level of scrutiny, transparency, attention to detail and oversight,” Osterman said. “What we’re seeing here by the state as well as (the company) is anything but that.”

Chris Green, the Department of Commerce’s assistant director, said agency officials reviewed the tribe’s concerns, but found nothing amiss with the $300,000 grant award.

“We are trying to find a way to increase economic development and job creation in rural counties with high unemployment,” he said. “These are counties that never saw the prerecession boom and are having a hard time post-recession,” Green said.

Companies “commonly look in the four corners of the state” before choosing a location, he said. It’s not unusual for them to vet multiple sites and have “deep discussions” with several economic development councils, Green said.

Green said he didn’t have direct knowledge of HiTest’s site feasibility study, but said sometimes studies are general enough to apply to multiple locations.

HiTest officials did not respond to requests for comment.

This story was updated to include a response from the Pend Oreille Public Utility District.

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