Last week, I drove through Lewiston on my way back home following the holidays. An inversion had settled over Lewiston on New Yearís Eve, trapping stinky and nauseating gas that the Clearwater Paper Mill was pumping into the air. As I drove by on U.S. Highway 95, it was hard to tell whether I was in Idaho or Beijing because the air was so foul. It was a good reminder to me that it is critical that we do everything we can to protect the clean air we still have in Bonner and Boundary counties.
Itís easy to take clean air for granted. But if we donít stand up for our right to clean air and demand accountability from our leaders, what we take for granted can easily slip away. And a new proposal for a silica smelter in Newport, Wash., is raising alarms and calling us to action. The smelter, proposed by a Canadian company, HiTest Sands, is the kind of industrial project that can have far-reaching impacts on our air and on our health, as prevailing winds would likely carry emissions from this smelter into Bonner and Boundary counties.
The pollution from this smelter would contain nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and other toxic air pollutants, many of which are linked to an increased risk for asthma, lung disease, and environmental impacts like acid rain and regional haze.
Since October, the Idaho Conservation League has been in close contact with state agencies and HiTest itself, and we are concerned that despite HiTestís best intentions, this smelter could damage air quality and health in North Idaho.
Our region is inherently vulnerable to bad air quality because of our geography and weather patterns, so we donít have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to new pollution. Local weather patterns make our region vulnerable to air pollution, particularly in the winter when inversions, like the one earlier last month, trap pollutants in a layer of stagnant air that can linger for days. In the 1990ís, air quality was so bad in Sandpoint that the city instituted local rules needed to meet baseline standards set by the Clean Air Act.
Thereís also the concerning fact that today, federal and state agencies are budget-strapped and lack the support to hold polluters to the rules on the books. The Environmental Protection Agency has lost 700 employees since the election of President Trump, and Trump has proposed further defunding the EPA by 31 percent. Because of this the EPA is far less able to assist states like Idaho and Washington with the funding, monitoring, and technical expertise that would ensure the proposed smelter does not break the rules and pollute our air. Idaho and Washington environmental agencies alone simply donít have the resources to properly enforce air quality permits and demand the most protective pollution controls from savvy industrial companies.
All this means that we must voice our concerns for our health and communities so that our leaders hear them loud and clear. As a baseline, HiTest should commit to collecting solid, site-specific weather and air quality data for at least one year before they ask the state of Washington for a permit. So we need to demand that our state environmental agencies step up and fight for our clean air and demand this data from HiTest.
Text 4IDAHO AIR to 52886 or visit https://bit.ly/newportsmelter to learn how to contact the Washington Department of Ecology and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and request HiTest collect and share this data.
Matt Nykiel works with the Idaho Conservation League to protect clean air and clean water in North Idaho.