NEWPORT, Wash. - Pend Oreille County could soon be the new home of a multimillion dollar silicon smelter, sparking a battle between big industry and rural Washington residents.
In September, Canadian-based HiTest Sand Inc. purchased 186 acres of land south of Newport along the Washington-Idaho border. The site was selected after a few years of discovery efforts by HiTest Sand Inc. Other locations considered included Addy and Usk, which is about 15 miles northwest of Newport.
Pend Oreille County Commissioner Mike Manus said the project is now in the permit stage, which could take months. But already, residents are joining efforts to voice their concern about the smelter.
Hollie Drange bought property near Newport ten years ago and built a home there. Now, she's worried that one day she'll look out her window and there will be a huge silicon plant in her backyard, literally. Her acreage shares a boundary with the property purchased for the proposed smelter.
She stood by the corner post with tears in her eyes as she told me about some of her concerns with the $325 million project.
"I'm not against the jobs, the employment, the growth for our community. What I'm against is where it is being located," Drange said. "This community has become my family. To see, in my opinion, the disregard for my family when it comes to health concerns, it's literally killing me inside."
The property is just outside of the city of Newport and a little more than a mile south of U.S. 2-Idaho State Route 41 Junction. There are many homes scattered within a half mile of the acreage. That's something that Commissioner Manus said he's concerned about and why the project needs to go through a rigorous approval process.
"There are some homes within half a mile up there. So we want to make sure it meets all the standards before it comes in," Manus said.
Manus said the project hinges on approval from the state. Agencies will be ensuring that the smelter will comply with state and national emission standards.
"If they say no, then that's what we are going to say too, We are not just going to keep fighting for it," Manus said.
For now though, Manus is looking into the project. He said it could stimulate growth in the region and bring in high paying jobs. He said HiTest plans to employ 150 jobs at the plant with an average hourly rate for the employees of around $70,000 per year. Hundreds of construction workers would also be needed to build the smelter throughout the construction cycle.
But those jobs aren't enough for some residents to fall in line to support this project. Theresa Hiesener just finished building her dream home after moving to the area from California. She can see the smelter's location from her porch.
"The sight is literally about 400 meters from my front porch, so when I look out my window or when I want to sit out and look at the stars at night, I'm gonna have this huge factory set in the middle of a pristine alpine setting," Hiesener said.
Manus countered that you won't be able to see much of the smelter with so many trees around it. But, Hiesener isn't just worried about her view. Both she and Drange said this plant could harm the environment and threaten the health of people in the area.
"We need to talk about the dangers of silica. It causes silicosis and a plethora of other health issues that will come overtime with this. They are just putting the entire community at risk,"Hiesener said.
Commissioner Manus said he's working to protect the community that he and his constituents are so invested in.
"We need to do everything we can to promote economic development but none of us want to destroy what we've got here in this valley," Manus said.
A group of concerned citizens will be meeting to discuss the project this Sunday.
Department of Ecology for the Eastern Region Communication Manager Brook Beeler said people are encouraged to comment on the project once the official process begins.
“If/when the company formally applies to develop the project we’ll be involved and there will be ample opportunity for interested parties to provide comments," Beeler said. "It’s our responsibility to complete a fair and thorough review."
To sign up for project updates related to environmental review, contact Ecology’s outreach coordinator Kari Johnson, Kari.firstname.lastname@example.org.