Northeast Washington leaders say they hope 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.
Supporters say the smelter project, proposed by the Canadian company Hi Test Sand, scould bring a lot of high-paying jobs to the town near the Idaho border.
State Sen. Shelly Short (R-Addy) believes the project will be a great deal for the region.
“It will be the first major full time employer in northeast Washington in a very long time. They will be at full capacity with 150-ish full-time jobs,” Short said.
Bill Ellis, chairman of the group Citizens against Newport Smelter, believes that number 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 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,” Ellis said.
Short says it is likely that, initially, Hi Test Sands 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 (from Canada), because they will have to mentor these people on how to use the equipment,” she said.
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. That money was given to the company to jump-start the project.
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,” Ellis said.
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.
Chris Greene, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Commerce, 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,” Greene said.
When it comes to the environmental concerns, many in the community worry that a silica smelter will release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Critics like Ellis worry when they hear local officials say 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 Brook Beeler says the process won't be rushed. She says the 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,” she said.
Besides the question about the environmental impact, it appears the source of electrical power for the plant may require more than can be generated by the local public utility district. In an email message, district spokeswoman Kimberly Gentle said the PUD “can supply power to the smelter either through market arrangements with third parties, or through our own resources, depending on generation and load conditions.”