In a sleepy rural corner of Washington, one of the region’s most intriguing debates over modern energy development is playing out. Tucked up against Idaho’s panhandle, some 13,000 residents of Pend Oreille County are grappling with a $325 million proposal to build a polluting industrial smelter that would manufacture silicon metal from ore for solar panels and electronics.
It is a political, social, and environmental lightning rod. Supporters say the smelter would create much-needed employment and contribute to the state’s renewable energy industry, while opponents decry the development as corrupt, polluting, and a violation of tribal rights.
There’s also a grim irony that the smelter proposal surfaces. The much-heralded clean energy economy of solar energy, computer circuitry, and electronics is only possible because of industrial practices that are the polar opposite. Mining and smelting to make the silicon metal used in smartphones, computers, and, most prominently, solar panels require massive amounts of energy and natural resources, and emit large quantities of air pollution. When fully operational, the smelter proposed for northeast Washington would use raw materials to the tune of hundreds of thousands of tons each day—trucks delivering wood chips from sawmills; trains loaded with Canadian silica and Kentucky coal; then there are the 105 megawatts of power from hydroelectric dams in the region. The facility would be among the biggest emitters in the state of carbon, sulfur, and other air pollutants.
The outcome of the project is unclear, but it highlights a balancing act that Northwest leaders can learn much from. The residents of Pend Oreille County are confronting some of the hardest questions about our changing energy economy.
Squarely at the center of the dispute is the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. It is impossible to understand the tribe’s opposition to the smelting project without understanding something about the tribe’s history. The Kalispel once made their home across a broad swath of the territory in what is today northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and northwest Montana. In 1855, one group, the Upper Kalispel, ceded land in exchange for space on a reservation near Flathead Lake, Montana. The other group, the Lower Kalispel, was not included in any legal US government protection until 1914 when a small reservation was established by President Woodrow Wilson in Pend Oreille County. During those years and in the decades that followed, however, the Kalispel’s livelihood and cultural resources were severely degraded by a range of activities. Homesteaders took land outright. Loggers felled the forests. Mills and other operations polluted the streams and poisoned the fish. Then electric utilities dammed the rivers, wiping out a complex ecology that decimated many staple food sources.
Today, the Kalispel see themselves on the front lines of climate change. The Reservation is located just 10 miles downwind from the planned smelter site. The community has already been subjected to severe wildfire smoke in recent summers, which may be due in part to climate change, and the Tribe is loath to allow further degradation of its natural resources. Leaders point out that the project’s backers and government agencies alike have failed to engage the Tribe in consultation, which is legally required.
Native opposition to the project appears to be growing. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the major regional consortium of tribes, raised concerns in early 2018 about the project and published a joint statement calling to halt the permitting process and apply greater scrutiny. Then on August 1, 2019, the organization issued a new resolution opposing the project on the grounds that it would emit large amounts of greenhouse gases and sulfur. The month before that, the Kalispel Tribe persuaded the US Environmental Protection Agency to give the reservation the highest level of protection under the US Clean Air Act, which requires stricter standards for industrial polluters. That designation alone may be enough to prevent the project from getting built near the Kalispel Tribe, but the project backers have not withdrawn their application.
Joining the tribes in opposition are a group of Spokane faith leaders, as well as a regional organization of health professionals, and the State Democratic Party. Meanwhile, statewide environmental groups have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the debate, either unaware of the project or unwilling to take sides.
Backers of the project have touted that the smelter might someday supply silicon metal to REC Silicon in Moses Lake, Washington, for made-in-the-Northwest solar panels, surely one of the region’s clean energy success stories. But REC is struggling, mired in trade disputes with China. Now running at just a quarter of its capacity, the firm already laid off 40 percent of its workers and may close its doors altogether. Officials behind the Pend Oreille smelter now claim that REC Silicon would only represent 5 percent of the smelter’s market and that Washington’s silicon metal would go elsewhere.
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Before the smelter can be built, the Washington Department of Ecology must produce a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency planned to publish a draft assessment for public comment in autumn 2019 and aimed to publish a final version before the year is out, but opponents are already crying foul over the remarkably limited information so far available, pointing out that the project was first proposed in 2016 and that backers have already had ample time to describe their plans in detail.
Lack of information will make it challenging for the public to provide meaningful critique during the short review period after the draft EIS is published—if it is ever published. Plans for the smelter are way behind schedule and the EIS process appears to be stalled amid widespread rumors that its backers are likely to scrap the project altogether.
Making matters worse, the project’s development is mired in an unresolved and contentious dispute over sale of public land for the benefit of the smelter that has roiled the small county. And opponents charge that an economic development grant for the project from the State Department of Commerce was illegal. Perhaps there’s one thing that’s clear: the proposal has opened up bitter divides in the community and ground local politics to a halt. Meanwhile, Pend Oreille County struggles with serious economic and social issues, including high levels of opioid addiction, a weak labor market, and an uncertain future for the county’s largest employer, a newsprint manufacturer.
While there is no way to know whether the project will ultimately be built, the questions are relevant far beyond Pend Oreille County. How should the region balance industrial manufacturing with environmental impacts? How should we weigh tradeoffs between energy projects and impacts on frontline communities? And how can governments honor tribal rights without directly consulting with the tribes themselves? And who gets to say?
Thanks to Ahren Stroming who co-authored and researched a previous article on the silicon smelter. That article referred to the project backer as Hi-Test, which was consistent with widespread usage up until the company’s rebranding of its smelter-development arm as PacWest Silicon.
Eric de Place is Sightline’s Director of Thin Green Line. He is a leading expert on coal, oil, and gas export plans in the Pacific Northwest, particularly on fossil fuel transport issues, including carbon emissions, local pollution, transportation system impacts, rail policy, and economics. For questions or media inquiries about Eric’s work, contact Sightline Communications Manager Anne Christnovich.
Why is coal needed to manufacture Silicon?
Eric de Place
I think some of the other commenters covered the need for coal, below. I’ll just add that the process requires a very specific grade of coal — it’s called “blue gem” — that is only found in a few locations around the world, one of which is the Cumberland Mountains in Kentucky.
The coal is used as a reductant. This is a complete chemical process that smelts crystalline silica using wood chips, coal, charcoal, at a temp. of over 3,000 degrees, thereby, creating a new chemical – silicon.
Thank you for laying out the facts clearly, and the underlying impact affecting us all – I hadn’t realized the energy and resources needed to build ‘clean energy’ such as solar panels.
Why is coal needed for the manufacturing of silicon, you ask. The process requires a tremendous amount of carbon elements to be added to the ore in the smelting process and heated to over 3000 degrees in the furnace. Coal, charcoal. Wood chips and silicon ore which is contains extremely dangerous micro fibers that settle the lungs and can cause cancer. The byproducts of burning coal are many and all deadly arsenic, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases that from the exhaust that goes up the stacks. All proposed for a site in a residential neighborhood less than a mile and a half from the center of the community downwind of the site. There is no upside to having a Superfund site upwind of your schools hospital and your elder care facilities. None.
Phyllis J. Kardos
Good article. Here is more information to add to it. I am elaborating a bit more on the question concerning coal, which by the way will be brought in by train. PacWest has plans to run a railroad spur line loop approximately 2 1/2 – 3 miles up to the potential industrial site, which is outside the Urban Growth Area where these type of facilities are against the law to be constructed.
The smelter will use Coal as a carbon reductant for extracting Silicon from Silicon Dioxide (quartz), and will emit hundreds to thousands of tons of coal toxins and Greenhouse Gases annually. Only 5% (or less) of the smelter’s silicon product will be for solar panels. The carbon and coal-toxin footprint will be tremendous. Inslee’s smelter endorsement is on the PacWest website.
Responsible Growth * NE Washington’s current petition with over 1,000 signatures asking Inslee to withdraw his support of the smelter was handed to the Governor’s team during the Climate Strike event. Will Inslee withdraw his support of the smelter; or will he place his support of a foreign, exploitive corporate polluter over the welfare of the citizens and environment of his very own state?
A high school explanation of the chemistry would be helpful.
Eric de Place
To be honest, Don, I’m a bit out of my depth on the chemistry. The clearest description I found was this industry website: https://www.waferworld.com/silicon-manufacturing-process/, which I’ll quote here:
Silicon metal is made from the reaction of silica and carbon materials like coke, coal and wood chips. When it comes to the manufacturing of silicon for wafers, the process can generally be broken down into three steps. Those steps are reduction, cooling, and packaging. Let’s take a deeper look at the three main steps used in silicon manufacturing.
During the reduction process, the raw materials are weighed and then placed into the furnace. A typical batch can contain 1,000lbs each of both gravel and chips and 500lbs of coal. The heat then melts the material and results in the reaction of sand with carbon to form silicon and carbon monoxide. While the metal is in this state, it is treated with oxygen and air to reduce the amount of calcium and aluminum impurities. This process takes anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to complete.
Thanks for this excellent article. One of the things I love is that Sightline is a think tank that actually thinks, and doesn’t shy away from an honest examination of difficult questions. The magnitude and number of such questions seems to be growing without bound.
M. E. Largent
Other communities downwind in Idaho will also be affected. There may be only 13,000 population in Pend Oreille county, there’s another 44,000 in neighboring Bonner County, not to mention effects of resulting acid rain and pollution on Lake Pend D’Oreille and surrounding environments. Communities around the lake will bear the bulk of the problems caused by the increase in truck and train trips to supply the smelter, and none of the benefits. It is not just a Washington state issue, but a regional issue.
The Kalispel Tribe and affiliated tribes have FAR MORE CREDIBILITY than the government lifer bureaucrats at the department of “Ecology.” The bureaucrats make their money via the corrupt “permitting” process, which does not give a CRAP about citizen input.
Quite the opposite. The “public comment” forums exist only to pad their guv-pay hours. Disgusting. Grant Pfeifer, the regional “Ecology” desk-sitter, benefits all the way through. This project is a FOREVER project, peridod. A true disaster for our community, pushed upon us by a TINY number of individuals. Shame, on Grant Pfeiffer, Shame on Jason Tymko, shame on the local politicans destroying Pend-O/Bonner’s natural heritage for their own benefit. Swamp City, all these folks.
Whatever happend to the Pend Oreille blogspot(?) that chronicled all of their back-door dealings related to this project? the only voice representing the people in this mess, silenced.