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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Newport smelter hearing draws skeptical crowd

Thubten Semkye, a Buddhist nun from Sravasti Abbey near Newport, Washington, speaks out against the proposed silicon smelter while testifying Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018 at a public meeting held by the Washington Department of Ecology at the Spokane Convention Center. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Buddhist nuns from Sravasti Abbey traveled to Spokane on Tuesday evening to testify about a silicon smelter proposed south of Newport.

“We’re deeply concerned about the emissions the smelter will pump into the atmosphere and the effect on people and the environment,” said Thubten Samten, one of the nuns.

Heavy fog and air inversions are already common around Newport, said Thubten Semkye, another member of the abbey.

“We’ve got some of the most beautiful air in the country, and EPA will give them a lot of room to pollute,” Semkye told state officials.

About 100 people attended the meeting at the Spokane Convention Center, which gave area residents a chance to tell the state Department of Ecology what they think should be included in its environmental review of the smelter.

The first draft of the review is expected to be released next year, with a final version out in late 2019.

The review will provide details about the smelter’s effect on the environment and nearby communities, including possible mitigation, said Brook Beeler, an Ecology Department spokeswoman. The state’s review must be completed before the smelter can get air quality and water discharge permits.

The proposed smelter is a project of PacWest Silicon, a subsidiary of HiTest Sands, of Alberta. The company would ship silica mined in British Columbia to the smelter, where it would be combined with wood chips, coal and charcoal at high temperatures to produce the metal.

Low electricity prices attracted the company to Northeast Washington. PacWest plans to build the smelter on 188 acres south of Newport, adjacent to the Washington-Idaho border.

PacWest expects to produce about 73,000 tons of silicon annually for solar panels and other uses. The smelter proposal qualified as a “project of statewide significance” and the company received $300,000 in state money to defray design costs.

PacWest officials say the smelter will create about 400 construction jobs and employ up to 150 people once it’s operating.

Scott Holstrom, business manager for Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 238, spoke in favor of the smelter. The union represents about 1,000 Eastern Washington residents who work in trades.

“This is viable jobs for the Newport area,” Holstrom said. “We’re interested in the jobs going union so we can uphold strong safety standards and prevailing wages.”

“This is the first review,” he added. “When they do the ecological study, the science will come out about the impact of the smelter.”

But the crowd was mostly skeptical. A number of speakers expressed concern about the smelter’s effect on property values, withdrawal of groundwater from the Little Spokane River watershed for the plant and air emissions.

According to a consultant’s report, the smelter could emit up to 766,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually, which would rank the smelter among the state’s top 15 carbon emitters. Company officials, however, say the silicon’s eventual use in solar panels would offset the greenhouse gas emissions. The smelter would also release nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide – components in smog and acid rain.

“I’m not someone who comes out to protest things, but it’s not a good situation,” said Dr. Renata Moon, a Spokane pediatrician.

Industrial pollutants have an outsized effect on children, the elderly and people with chronic lung and heart conditions, she said. With kids, “their lungs are still developing,” she said.

The Kalispel Tribe also opposes the smelter. Last year, the tribe’s council asked Gov. Jay Inslee to rescind the $300,000 state grant and work with the Kalispels on other types of economic development for the area.

“If Ecology chooses to move forward, you must do a very robust (environmental review),” Deane Osterman, executive director for the tribe’s natural resources department, told state officials.

The smelter proposal is “ill-defined,” lacking critical information that would allow the tribe and the public to provide meaningful input, he said.

The review must address human health, the deposit of air pollutants on the forest and local lakes, and the smelter’s effect on tourism in northeast Washington, Osterman said.

Public meetings on the smelter continue this week in Newport and Priest River. Written comments will be accepted through Oct. 26.