Hi Test Silicon Proposes a Smelter for Pend Oreille County

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Northeastern Washington leaders say they’re hopeful a proposed silicon smelter will bring high paying jobs to an economically depressed part of the state. Many in the community of Newport aren’t so happy with the plan.

The proposed Smelter project, by the Canadian company, Hi Test Silicon could bring an estimated 150 jobs to the Northeast Washington community near the Idaho border.

State Senator Shelley Short believes the project will be a great deal for the region: “It will be the first major full time employer in NE Washington in a very long time. They will be at full capacity, with 150-ish full-time jobs.”

Bill Ellis, chairman of the group Citizens against Newport Smelter believes the number of jobs is exaggerated, as are claims that the jobs will be “high paying:” “The average wage for the people in the area is going to be at best 17 dollars an hour, because there are no engineers here, there are no smelter people here, and it’s arguable their administration is going to be brought in.”

Senator Short says it is likely that initially Hi Test Silicon will have to spend time training local people to work at the site: “For a short period of time, there will be people coming down, because they will have to mentor these people on how to use the equipment.”

The smelter, which would produce silicon from the smelting of quartz sand and charcoal, qualified as a project of statewide significance. That designation allowed the state Department of Commerce to provide $300,000 to the Pend Oreille Economic Development Council, which was given to the company to jump start the project.

Bill Ellis says, ironically, that was exactly the same amount the company paid the Pend Oreille Public Utility District for the land to build on: “We’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars being donated by the county or the state, so they bought their land for free, and it was sold to them for half price, and this started making people angry.”

Senator Short says some of the money from the state is being used to defray the cost of an environmental analysis, and feels the free land charges are overstated.

Washington State Commerce Department spokesman, Chris Greene says the money given to Hi Test comes with some strings attached: “There’s contractual language in the agreement, whereby a company must conform and create those jobs in a certain period of time, or pay the funding back to the EDC, which in turn repays it to the state.”

When it comes to the environmental concerns, many in the community worry about a Silica smelter that will be releasing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Critics, like Bill Ellis, worry when they hear local officials saying the statewide significance designation will mean “fast tracking” the project through the permitting process, especially when it comes to meeting environmental standards.

Ecology department Spokeswoman Brooke Beeler says the normal State Environmental Policy Act, (SEPA) protocols will be adhered to, without any type of expedited process: “There’s no time criteria or time crunch associated with this particular project or projects associated with statewide significance. It’s something we still have to get through our processes and engage the public at each level and make sure the environment is protected at the end.”

Besides the environmental impact, it appears the source of electrical power for the plant may require more than can be generated by the local Pend Oreille Public Utility District. While a spokeswoman for the utility would not go on tape, Kimberly Gentle was able to answer our questions in an email about the ability of the PUD to provide electricity to Hi Test Sand.

The email says the PUD “can supply power to the smelter either through market arrangements with 3rd parties, or through our own resources, depending on generation and load conditions.”