Smelter foes warn of brewing ‘storm’

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Idaho residents are pushing back against a proposal to develop a silicon smelter near Newport. (Photo courtesy HITEST)

SANDPOINT — Determined opponents of the proposed HiTest silicon smelter near Newport took their case to Bonner County commissioners on Tuesday.

“There’s a storm coming from the public on this one and you guys need to get ahead of it and not behind it because it’s going to be expansive. That facility is not appropriate for that community out there or this area with the prevailing winds,” said Tom Clark, who operates an orthopedic saddlebag manufacturing business in western Bonner County.

Edmonton, Alberta-based HiTest estimates that the silicon smelter would employ as many as 150 workers when the plant comes on line. Erection of the metal plant could require as many as 400 workers, according to HiTest’s promotional materials.

Clark said his four-employee shop has struggled for years to find housing in Bonner County.

“I’m wondering where we are going to put these people,” said Clark.

HiTest owns a fully permitted quartz mine in Golden, British Columbia, and intends to process the material at the proposed Newport facility. The company estimates the metal plant will be able to produce 60 metric tons of silicon material. Roughly half of the silicon will be sold into the polycrstalline silicon market for use in and solar panels, which company officials say provides an offset to carbon dioxide emissions.

For every metric ton of carbon dioxide created during the production of silicon metal, nine times that amount is saved from being emitted to the atmosphere over the life of the solar panels, HiTest officials say.

However, opponents are doubtful of the emissions estimates.

“There’s some serious concerns about pollution that will be emitted from this. I don’t believe HiTest is being forthright with the community in their emissions numbers,” said Theresa Heisener, an Oldtown resident whose home would be within 400 meters of the facility.

The smelter proposal prompted the formation of Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter and the creation of Pend Oreille Health, an anonymous blog critical of the proposal and elected officials who have welcomed the project.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington Department of Commerce designated the proposal a project of statewide importance because of the positive economic impact silicon smelters can have in rural communities. The designation also expedites the permitting process for the project and qualifies it for tax preferences.

CANNS Executive Director Michael Naylor, who owns property near the site, said he’s rallying for the involvement of state officials due to the impacts the smelter will have on the citizens of Oldtown, Priest River and “anybody down this river.”

Bonner County Commissioner Jeff Connolly holds a seat on an executive board that is parsing through the issues surrounding the smelter proposal, which is regarded with suspicion among opponents of the smelter. However, Connolly said he accepted the appointment because it will allow him to learn about the project and evaluate impacts — be they good or bad — to Bonner County.

Connolly said he has not yet formulated his own position yet on whether he supports the smelter proposal or not.

“There may come a point when I learn more information and I pick a side. But, at this point, I’m just trying to gather as much information as I can,” Connolly said on Wednesday.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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