The Kalispel Tribe is proposing to change its air quality status under the federal Clean Air Act.
The move comes as a reaction to a proposed silicon smelter that would be built near the reservation in Newport, Washington.
The Clean Air Act lists three stages of air protection levels, called class one, two, and three. Class one is the most stringent. Every state in the nation has a class two designation. Some areas, such as national parks and several Indian reservations, like the Spokane reservation, have class one status.
Now the Kalispel Tribe has issued public notice that it wants to change its reservation at Usk to class one as well.
“The classifications apply to three pollutants, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide," said EPA air quality spokesman David Bray.
Dean Osterman, the Kalispel Tribe’s natural resource officer, says the tribe is seeking to upgrade to class one status because of what it considers a serious threat to the current air quality.
“It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when we were surprised with PacWest’s silicon smelter being proposed for the Usk location that we, for the very first time, were ever concerned about our air quality on the reservation," Osterman said. "For the previous decades I have worked there, and before that, the tribe had never considered its air quality at risk."
PacWest withdrew its plan to the smelter in Usk, but decided to apply for permits to construct the facility in nearby Newport, about 12 miles from the reservation. Osterman says the three pollutants regulated by the act would all be released by the smelter, if it is approved. The new designation would mean the company would have to meet more stringent air quality standards that would be overseen by the Washington Department of Ecology.
Osterman says even meeting those more stringent standards would not guarantee the health of residents.
“Just because something is lawfully permitted does not equate to being necessarily healthy. People will say if it passes the permitting at the Department of Ecology, or X or Y process, than it must be ok. No, it is only permitting a massive amount of pollution,” Osterman said.
Public comment on the tribe's plan to switch to the class one category can be made to the EPA until December 14.