Doctors’ Orders? No Silicon Smelter

October 23, 2018 at 5:00 am | By JUDD WILSON Hagadone News Network | Bonner County Daily Bee

COEUR d’ALENE — The proposed PacWest silicon smelter in Newport, Wash., would be bad for the health of residents in North Idaho, eastern Washington, and western Montana, say several local doctors.

“This is a monstrous, heavily polluting smelter that they’re proposing. That has me concerned,” said pediatrician Dr. Renata Moon. The Kootenai County native said she is not typically involved in environmental issues, but the proposed smelter “is wrong for our area.”

The smelter will be powered by hundreds of thousands of tons of coal from outside the region, Moon said.

By belching out air pollution and with heavy metals finding their way into local waterways, the smelter would negatively impact children during their bodies’ formative years, she said. Kids’ lungs aren’t fully formed when they are born, so exposure to air pollution affects them for their entire lives.

“Children have a higher susceptibility to air pollutants because they breathe faster, and play more vigorously than adults do,” Moon said, citing an American Academy of Pediatrics statement. “They inhale more over time, and tend to play outdoors more than adults do,”

Moon said numerous studies have shown bad health effects from air pollutants even at levels that were previously thought safe.

“There is no safe level for many of these chemicals,” she said.

The PacWest silicon smelter was planned for Newport, Moon said, because the region has “decent air quality in general, so they have more room to pollute” without getting slapped by fines.

Moon also said lead that is left over from coal burning is a danger to chidren, causing intellectual disabilities even if the lead is removed from their bodies later on.

She said coal-burning, heavy industries should not be located in inhabited areas like eastern Washington and North Idaho.

“Does the heavy industry’s rights to a profit outweigh the rights of the community to a healthy environment?” she asked.

Emergency physician Dr. Robyn Hitchcock agreed.

“I think having a pollution factory nearby would be a travesty. Look at what happened in the Silver Valley. Now it’s still a Superfund site. They test the kids for lead three to four times a year. It’s still a disaster. It would be a travesty if that happened in this day and age,” said the doctor, who works in Kellogg.

Hitchcock said if the smelter is built and begins operations, air quality in North Idaho will be like it is during wildfire season, with discolored skies and people wearing masks outside. “Imagine that, all the time,” she added.

Hitchcock also said when air quality deteriorates, those with sensitivities take it particularly hard. Asthmatics, cancer patients, and others “will be taken down by this,” she predicted. “People come into the emergency room with respiratory failure during wildfires because the air is so bad. That’s going to escalate. And some of them die,” she added.

Hitchcock explained that even those who are otherwise healthy are negatively impacted by air pollution. Once you lose your health, there’s no getting it back, she said.

“I think it would be a disaster on a number of levels,” said Dr. Timothy Bonine of Sandpoint.

The family doctor explained that inversions during the winters would trap and concentrate PacWest smelter emissions “like a pressure cooker.”

He said he could hardly keep up with the number of patients who came in with respiratory problems during wildfires last summer, and feared seeing a repeat of years ago when grass fields would be burned.

“The number of older people with lung diseases and kids with asthma skyrocketed,” he said.

Bonine also feared the amount of coal dust that would be generated by the smelter.

“There is no known safe amount of coal dust to inhale,” he said.

However, Jayson Tymko said such claims are “so far off it’s not even funny.”

The president of HiTest Sands’ U.S. operations said the air quality here would be no worse with the smelter.

Just look at the French Alps, he said, where two silicon smelters have operated for years. Look at Niagara Falls, N.Y., where another silicon smelter has operated for the past 50 years. Tourists flock to both locations for their pristine air and water, said Tymko, and don’t even notice the silicon smelters there.

“One hundred percent of what the plant emits is safe,” he added.

The bulk of what the smelter will emit into the air is carbon dioxide — and as for other gases, it’ll amount to less than what six boats on Priest Lake emit in an afternoon, Tymko said.

Lead will not come out of the smelter into the air or in the water, he said. There are more and worse emissions from the log furnaces throughout Pend Oreille County, Wash., than there will ever be from the proposed plant, said Tymko. The smelter will produce zero coal ash, he added.

Tymko said he wants the public to have full knowledge of what the truth is regarding the smelter, and that’s why he asked the Washington Department of Ecology to conduct a full environmental impact study, and invited in the Washington Department of Health as well.

“If we were going to be polluting the air, Washington State is the last state we’d be doing business in,” he said.

Moon said she has spoken with officials at the Washington Department of Ecology and the Washington Department of Health, but said “Idaho needs to have a voice in this.”

Information about the smelter proliferates online. A website funded by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians is online at, while PacWest has its own website complete with FAQs at Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter have a page on Facebook, as do the Friends and Allies of the Newport Silicon Smelter.

As part of its EIS scoping process, the Washington Department of Ecology is accepting public comments on the smelter through 11:59 p.m. Oct. 26 at Residents can also write to Grant Pfeifer, Regional Director Department of Ecology, at 4601 N. Monroe St., Spokane, WA 99205.

Hitchcock said Idahoans concerned about their health and the environment ought to prevent the smelter from becoming a reality.

“Once it’s up and running, it’ll be so much harder to shut down than to keep it from contaminating our air in the first place,” she said.

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