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.

  • 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.