NEWPORT — After months of speculation, conspiracy theories, and rumors, on Wednesday night hundreds of local residents learned firsthand what HiTest Sands intends to do here.
Earlier this year, the Canadian company bought 186 acres of land just south of Newport to build a silicon smelter plant that will produce silicon for solar panels. Company officials explained Wednesday how the plant would operate and just what the public ought to fear, or not fear, from their company. State regulators informed the public as to how the government would protect local health and environmental quality.
The plant would employ 130 workers making from $40,000 to $100,000 annually said HiTest Sands President Jayson Tymko. These jobs would require a high school diploma, GED, or associate degree and would include positions such as shift leaders, tappers, and equipment operators. Another 20 jobs would be created in plant management with annual wages of $60,000 to more than $150,000.
Positions such as office support, various clerks, and more would require from a high school diploma or GED to a university degree, said Tymko. The project would be completely funded by private investors, said Tymko, and not depend on tax credits. He said all but a dozen jobs will be locally sourced, and some local hiring is already underway. The one dozen non-local workers have a combined 200 years of experience in the industry and will be critical to ensuring the plant’s safety and efficiency, said HiTest Chief Operating Officer Jim May.
A silicon smelter plant in Burnsville, Miss. failed early because of a lack of experienced shift leaders, said May. It’s a small industry and HiTest’s leadership is well aware of the shortcomings of other plants and is willing to spend more money and time on the Newport plant in order to operate safely, said May. Plants in the middle of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and near Orkanger, Norway, and Pocking, Germany, prove that tourism, dense populations, clean environments, and silicon smelter plants can coexist side by side, said company officials.
The company will have to comply with state and federal laws regulating hazardous air pollutants, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, regional haze and more, said Bart Brashers, Ramboll Environment air quality meteorologist and former Environmental Protection Agency regulator.
May said that while the plant would emit thousands of tons of carbon dioxide, gaseous emissions from the smelter plant would contain zero heavy metals. All such metals would be trapped in the silicon due to the plant’s submerged arc furnace setup, he said. The plant will control particulate matter with methods such as misting, filters known as baghouses, dry scrubbers, and other means said May. As for greenhouse gases, May cited a 2009 International Council of Chemical Associations study showing that for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted during the silicone process, “the use of silicones allows for savings 9 times greater” in things such as automotive, construction, and solar energy.
Along with others scared that the HiTest plant would exacerbate their breathing difficulties, HiTest spokesman Tim Thompson told a concerned teen with anaphylaxis that the company “will do our best to never put you in that condition” of triggering an allergic reaction through releasing toxic gases. “We take very seriously your condition,” he said.
HiTest’s presentation definitively claimed, “The process of making silicon metal does not lead to silicosis,” and “The dust created through the process is amorphous (rounded not angular) which does not lead to silicosis.”
At the evening’s outset Pend Oreille County Commissioner Karen Skoog pleaded for tolerance and patience during the permitting process. She said she was hopeful that together the community could find solutions and diversify the economy. Skoog and her colleagues have been excoriated for alleged corruption by activists opposing the smelter.
Idaho Rep. Heather Scott told Washington Department of Ecology Eastern Regional Director Grant Pfeifer she wanted Idahoans to have a seat at the table in the permitting process through the federal government’s National Environmental Policy Act mechanism. Pfeifer said the Washington Department of Ecology would include Idaho in its modeling and would collaborate with officials at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Former Idaho state senate candidate Glenn Rohrer asked HiTest officials how many trucks would use Idaho’s roads. Tymko said the company will bring in 7-8 trucks of wood chips per day and is working with BNSF to bring rail to site for its other materials. If rail were unavailable, up to 31 trucks per day would be on the roads, said Tymko.
Amidst about two dozen people who spoke during the question-and-answer portion of the evening, several retirees mentioned that they had moved to the Eastern Washington/North Idaho region from out of state and were blindsided at the prospect of an industrial plant in their adopted rural home. Complaints of secrecy and a lack of public participation abounded during the question-and-answer period.
However as Pfeifer explained, once the company begins the permitting process, by state and federal law the public will have multiple opportunities to share their comments and concerns with state regulators. Those concerns will have to be addressed by any plan state regulators approve, as required by law. The permitting process seems mysterious and cumbersome to the uninitiated, but as Thompson and Pfeifer stressed, the company and state want to comply with environmental law and address any concerns the public may have.
To date the company had not begun the permitting process, said Pfeifer, making the evening’s symposium merely the warm-up act to a long local drama still to come.