DIAMOND LAKE — In a heated meeting here Oct. 5, Pend Oreille County Commissioners heard from a room full of angry residents concerned about the negative impacts that HiTest’s proposed smelter might have on Newport and the surrounding regions.
After considering other sites for many months, HiTest announced last week that it had purchased the 192-acre Pend Oreille Public Utility District property to the south of Newport. Commissioner Steve Kiss explained that the property had been purchased decades ago to house a gas-powered turbine that never materialized. PUD put up the property for bid as surplus recently and garnered no bids. “This was an opportunity to sell it,” Kiss said.
The timing of the company’s announcement, plus accusations of incompetence on the part of the commissioners, made for a charged, standing room-only environment. Local resident and anti-smelter activist Betty Berkhousen stirred up the crowd as they waited for county officials to arrive at The Boat Launch Restaurant here, which was full before the meeting even started. Berkhousen said she used to be an oil field industry worker, and had been vetting HiTest’s claims in her conversations with government and nonprofit agencies. She said that 50 of the company’s proposed 150 jobs had already been spoken for by out-of-state workers, and that the environmental damage caused by the proposed smelter would have negative effects as severe as those depicted in the film “Gasland,” which featured a scene of tap water lighting on fire from natural gas allegedly released by fracking. However, after the film’s release Colorado regulators and local residents pointed out that that exact tap water faucet had been found to be unrelated to fracking.
County commission chairperson Karen Skoog quietly tried to rein in the meeting from Berkhousen after letting her speak for some time past the appointed meeting time. Tensions had already been raised so much that Skoog had difficulty bringing the meeting to its agenda, which started off with routine business and updates unconnected to the main topic of discussion. After muddling through those items, and to the relief of the antsy crowd, Skoog handed over the meeting to commissioner Mike Manus who has spearheaded the HiTest project for the county. Like Skoog before him, he seemed ill-prepared to deal with the levels of palpable hostility in the air. Though most questioners were polite in their wording, an accusatory tone permeated the entirety of the evening. The commissioner grappled with a public that feared, among other things, talc-like dust, noise pollution, increased traffic on the roads, the lowering of the water table, and the end of peaceful, rural, non-toxic civilization in this part of the county. Manus repeatedly answered questions from residents who wanted exact details of the project. Sometimes he had the information in hand, while at other times he could only assure them that the details would be fleshed out during the permitting process over the coming months. Residents remained unsatisfied by the vague answers.
“It’s still early on in the HiTest process,” said Skoog, while adding that the fact that HiTest had already purchased land did not indicate that they would necessarily use that land. This remark drew a scornful laugh from many in attendance.
Washington State has one of the highest standards for air quality in the country, said Manus, and the county had brought on Gregg Dohrn as HiTest project manager. Manus said Dohrn is a consultant with extensive experience in these types of projects.
“I feel very confident that Gregg’s asking all the questions that need to be asked,” said Manus.
Manus explained that he and other county officials had been meeting with HiTest and state officials, and that all of HiTest’s scientific models based on weather and wind patterns for the past three years had shown that the proposed smelter could pass Washington’s stringent environmental standards.
Manus said commisioners will take a weeklong trip to see how a similar silicon plant in Mississippi works. The HiTest smelter in Newport would combine water-soaked woodchips and clean coal with 95.5 percent pure quartz heated in a submerged arc furnace to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, explained Manus. The coal and wood would vaporize and the silicon product would be cooled in a closed loop system, therefore using less water than at the Mississippi plant. No heavy metals would result from the process, he added.
Smelter skeptic Dallas Johnson said that like Kaiser Aluminum had done years ago, once HiTest got its smelter up and running, it would be cheaper for the company to simply pay fines for pollution rather than upgrade its equipment to protect the local population.
Manus countered by pointing out that “the standards today are greater than what they were when Kaiser was in business.”
The commissioner said the county needed more details from the company before forming conclusions on the proposed smelter. He explained that so far it is unclear whether the county or the state department of ecology would be the lead agency in the permitting process.
Manus disputed Berkhouser’s allegation about jobs reserved for outsiders. The company would initially bring 20-30 experienced supervisors for a few years to oversee the smelter getting going, he said, but then after that those jobs would be open to local applicants. The remainder of the 150 expected positions would be open from the get-go.
Property owner Hollie Drange, who lives within 300 feet of the proposed smelter site, joined her neighbors to question Manus about the potential negative impact of the business. “How would you have dealt with it if they were going to build 300 feet from your property,” she asked. Manus paused and then replied, “I would have dealt with it.”
Tandra Maghan, whose parents live along the property line as well, said that people like her parents who have invested decades into keeping that land organic, free of pesticides, and quiet, would see their way of life ruined overnight. She and others alleged that the proposed smelter would instantly make their properties lose value and become impossible to resell.
Skoog compared the county’s situation to that of a girl getting asked out to the dance when there aren’t any other suitors lining up to ask her out. The smelter would bring jobs to those currently unemployed, and those who will need a job in the future, she said. Those jobs would retain local youth and invite more local services and businesses to strengthen the local community, she added.
Kiss said that he would love it if a former cement plant in the northern part of Pend Oreille County was still around, despite all the noise it brought along with it. “I would give my left arm to have that plant back to get those jobs back in the community again,” he said.
Towards the end of the meeting, Skoog implored the concerned residents to consider the possible benefits of the project and not just its possible costs before making a decision.
“We live and breathe here,” said Skoog. “When we have a business that wants to come into the county, do we make a decision before or after reviewing all the information?”
Manus said all of the county’s information on the project is available online at pocedc.org, and that those without Internet access could call or stop by the county office to obtain physical copies of the documents.