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Wednesday, October 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Newport smelter clears hurdle after appeal of county zoning change is denied

A pickup truck parked in Newport, Washington, in March 2018 displays a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. The smelter project cleared one of many hurdles on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2019, with an important land-zoning decision by the Pend Oreille County hearing examiner. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)
A pickup truck parked in Newport, Washington, in March 2018 displays a sign opposing a proposed silicon smelter. The smelter project cleared one of many hurdles on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2019, with an important land-zoning decision by the Pend Oreille County hearing examiner. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

The more than three-year effort to bring a silicon smelter to Northeast Washington cleared one of many hurdles on Wednesday, when the Pend Oreille County hearing examiner denied an opposition group’s effort to stop the county from changing how the proposed smelter site near Newport and other public lands are zoned.

Responsible Growth*Northeast Washington, the group that filed the appeal, responded by vowing to fight on, while PacWest Silicon, the company behind the smelter project, promised to see the project through, no matter how long it takes.

“While we are disappointed with the county’s decision, we remain committed to taking whatever action is necessary to ensure that the county follows the law and that the smelter is not built in our community,” said Phyllis Kardos, co-chair of Responsible Growth.

Jayson Tymko, president of PacWest, said he was pleased to see the county deny the appeal and keep the path open for the proposed smelter site to be zoned as industrial.

“We look at ourselves as patient landowners in the area waiting for some of the local issues to be resolved,” Tymko said. “For us, the largest (issue) is the zoning.”

Like some 65% of Pend Oreille County, the proposed smelter site south of Newport and the Pend Oreille River and adjacent to Idaho is currently zoned as public land, a designation that comes with few immediately permissible uses and that bars the industrial development PacWest has proposed.

For the smelter to move forward, the 188-acre site will have to be rezoned. But the county has proposed rezoning not only this four-parcel plot but also the rest of the county land zoned as public land.

According to County Commissioner Mike Manus, the county’s effort to change the public land designation and PacWest’s need for the change are coincidental.

“That’s not what this change was about,” Manus said. “It’s just that this potential smelter property was one of the pieces of land that was in that mix. It wasn’t about the smelter. We got a new planning director, and he said this is something that just isn’t right, to have this much (zoned as) public lands. … It was, quite frankly, unfortunate that it happened at the same time PacWest was coming in our community, because it made it look like that was what we were doing.”

Kardos is among those who believe the broader zoning change is related to the smelter proposal, but she also noted her concern about how the change could affect all public lands in the county.

The county’s effort to “get rid of the public lands designation,” she said, “would literally open up Pend Oreille County to industrial development and all types of development.” Concern about such development is at the heart of Responsible Growth’s opposition to the smelter, Kardos said.

The smelter, she said, would “literally destroy our ruralness.”

“That’s one reason, and that’s a huge reason” to oppose the smelter, Kardos argued, but there are many others, including the “huge amount of industrial pollution” it would emit. “And we can do better for our county than an urbanized industrial smelter.”

Her group plans to appeal the zoning change again, if the opportunity arises, and is also pursuing a lawsuit over the Pend Oreille Public Utility District’s sale of the land 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.

The question of how much pollution the silicon smelter would emit is at the heart of the battle over it, with Responsible Growth, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Buddhist nuns from the nearby Sravasti Abbey and other opponents arguing emissions and other byproducts would endanger the local environment and people.

Tymko, though, said claims about the environmental and health risks are “so untrue it’s not even funny.”

“Washington state has some of the tightest (environmental) restrictions out there,” he said. “And we wouldn’t have spent our first dollar on acquiring the site if we thought it was going to be any risk” that the state would ultimately reject the planafter an environmental review.

Ryan Lancaster, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, said the agency has stopped moving forward with conducting that review at the request of PacWest.

“The applicant requested that Ecology stop work on the environmental review after a bid period,” Lancaster said in an email. “We would only move forward if the applicant indicated they were interested in starting the environmental review process again. At that point, we would restart the bid process to hire a contractor.”

While last week’s zoning ruling indicates there is room for progress on the project, Manus said he’s not optimistic the smelter will ever be built in Pend Oreille County, “mostly because the company has been uncommunicative” with the county of late.

“I would think they would be staying in contact and they have not. And they haven’t even returned phone calls,” Manus said. “So I would be surprised if it moved forward.”

But Tymko said his company, which is a subsidiary of Edmonton, Alberta-based HiTest Sand, has already “invested over $25 million into this project” and isn’t going to walk away.

“We’ve got a long-term vision in mind,” Tymko said. “We’ve got a great asset to utilize and all the patience in the world.”

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