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Commissioners reject zoning change that would pave way for Newport silicon smelter

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 9, 2019

A pickup truck parked in Newport, Washington, in March 2018 displays a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)
A pickup truck parked in Newport, Washington, in March 2018 displays a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

The Pend Oreille County commissioners have rejected a proposed zoning change that would pave the way for a new silicon smelter near Newport.

The commissioners voted unanimously Monday to shoot down the proposed comprehensive plan amendment, which would re-designate some 65% of land in the county from “public land” to “rural land,” opening the door to industrial development.

PacWest Silicon and its parent company, Edmonton, Alberta-based HiTest Sand, have been trying for years to build a smelter on a 188-acre site along the Idaho border south of Newport and the Pend Oreille River. The smelter would produce tens of thousands of tons of silicon annually for solar panels and other uses.

The commissioners’ decision comes about two and a half months after the Pend Oreille County hearing examiner denied an effort to block the rezoning by a group that opposes the smelter project, Responsible Growth*Northeast Washington.

Newport residents, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and Buddhist nuns from Sravasti Abbey near Newport have raised concerns about the vast amounts of greenhouse gases the smelter would produce. PacWest officials have countered that the smelter would create jobs, and that the silicon’s eventual use in solar panels would offset gas emissions.

Rick Eichstaedt, a lawyer for the group and a former director of the Center for Justice in Spokane, said he was surprised by the commissioners’ decision and called it “a good early Christmas gift for the citizens of Newport.”

In a statement, Phyllis Kardos, a leader of Responsible Growth, said the group is “cautiously optimistic” that the commissioners’ action “will forever shut the door” on the smelter project “and discourage other heavy, urban, industrial facilities from attempting to locate in our rural area.”

Responsible Growth also is pursuing a lawsuit over the Pend Oreille Public Utility District’s sale of the smelter site to PacWest. A Spokane County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit earlier this year, but Responsible Growth and its co-plaintiffs have appealed that decision.

In September, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology said the agency had stopped conducting an environmental review for the project, at least temporarily, at the request of PacWest.

PacWest officials did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Monday evening, though in September the company’s president promised to see the project through, no matter how long it takes.

At the very least, Eichstaedt said, the commissioners’ vote will delay the process.

“If there’s going to be a smelter, it’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.

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