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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Glen Nenema: Governor Inslee should revoke support for smelter project

Glen Nenema

A proposed smelter that threatens the health and natural resources of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians was named a project of “statewide significance” by Gov. Jay Inslee – an endorsement of the project and a signal to fast-track its approval. It was a surprising move from our climate-activist governor and it deserves a closer look.

In 2016, a Canadian company approached the governor with a plan to build a silicon smelter in Pend Oreille County, claiming that it would create local jobs and help combat global climate change by producing silicon metal for solar panels. The governor responded by supporting the smelter project, but without first understanding how it would affect the local environment or health of those who live nearby.

Only after Inslee named it a project of statewide significance and awarded it $300,000 from the state’s strategic reserve fund did anyone take the time to actually review its impact. In fact, data released later from the company shows it would rank among Washington’s top 10 polluters for greenhouse gases and cancer-causing particulates, as well as sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.

The Kalispel reservation is located just 10 miles downwind from the proposed project, putting us directly in harm’s way from the smelter’s emissions. Yet Gov. Inslee did not consult with us, as he is required to do by law. He didn’t even bother to tell us. Instead, the tribe only learned about the governor’s support when we saw a news release from his office.

A silicon smelter is a major industrial development with serious potential to harm our people and our natural resources for generations to come – and yet it received the governor’s stamp of approval and public funding without so much as a conversation between state government and our tribe.

Worse, the smelter company has produced no evidence that its silicon metal would actually be used for solar panels and nothing to show that the smelter would boost clean energy. It can’t even prove it has a guaranteed market for the silicon metal. We believe the governor moved too quickly at the vague promise of clean energy.

We have shared our concerns about the health effects and environmental impacts with Gov. Inslee. Our tribal council presented the information about greenhouse gas emissions and told the governor we were worried about the health of our children, elders and natural resources. For too long and too often, Native peoples have been made to sacrifice our lands and our livelihoods to the agendas of others.

We will not let it happen this time.

In an October 2019 letter to the company’s CEO, Gov. Inslee wrote, “I take seriously the community opposition to your proposed silicon smelter project in Pend Oreille County, especially concerns raised by the Kalispel Tribe.” We hope this is evidence the governor understands that the Kalispel Tribe will not allow industry to profit at the expense of our people and our lands.

When he was running for president last summer, Gov. Inslee made a campaign pledge that he would “fully empower tribal nations through free, prior and informed consent … and to engage with them in joint control and protection of their lands, waters, territories and resources.” It’s time for him to follow through in his home state. The Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and many others have called on the governor to reconsider his support for the smelter.

Gov. Inslee, we are asking you: Respect our sovereignty, protect our people, and revoke all state support for the smelter.

Glen Nenema is chairman of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

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