What’s a Breath of Clean Air Worth?

With agencies lacking resources to enforce air quality rules, we must voice our concerns for our health and communities.

Just like our health, clean air is priceless. It’s worth a lot to know that our kids, grandparents, and those most vulnerable among us are safe from toxic air pollutants. And our slice of North Idaho heaven wouldn’t be possible without clean air. Clean air draws visitors and businesses into our communities, and with it we enjoy crystal clear views of this beautiful part of Idaho.

Clean air is also something we have to fight for and demand from our leaders. And a new proposal for a silica smelter in Newport, WA, is raising alarms and calling us to action. The smelter, proposed by Canadian company HiTest Sand, 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 HiTest’s 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 don’t 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 two weeks ago, trap pollutants in a layer of stagnant air that can linger for days. In the 1990s, air quality was so bad in Sandpoint that the city instituted local rules needed to meet baseline standards set by the Clean Air Act.

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 Donald Trump, and his administration has proposed further defunding the EPA by 31%. 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 that the proposed smelter does not break the rules and pollute our air. Idaho and Washington environmental agencies alone simply don’t 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 air quality and weather data for at least one year before asking 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 information from HiTest.

Take action now to request that the Washington Department of Ecology and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality require HiTest to collect site-specific data over a 1-year period.

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