by Pia K. Hansen

A strange e-mail made it to the Bonners Ferry Ranger District's inbox the other day. It originated with the White House Energy Project Streamlining Task Force and contained a draft presentation on the value of utilizing forest biomass -- that's trees -- for energy, safety and the benefit of forest health. The Kootenai Tribe's proposed waste-to-energy plant is listed as a success story toward the end of the presentation.

What's so strange is that the plant doesn't exist yet. As a matter of fact, the tribe hasn't even applied for the necessary Environmental Protection Agency permits needed to begin building it. But that doesn't put the plant's protesters at ease.

"It says in the e-mail that this project is successful and that's what makes us think they are trying to cut some backroom deal in D.C.," says Jerry Pavia, the volunteer board chairman of the Idaho Conservation League. "The tribe refuses to talk to any of the groups that are opposed to this project."

At the heart of discussion is a 12.5 megawatt waste-to-energy (WTE) plant the Kootenai Tribe is proposing to build on reservation land, just outside Bonners Ferry. The project has a $25 million price tag and is predicted to bring a little more than 30 jobs to this rural part of Boundary County. According to the tribe's proposal, the WTE facility would first burn wood waste from local sawmills and the forest industry, then about two years later switch to burn solid waste. All waste would be sorted, however, to cut down on harmful emissions from the plant.

At a Boundary County commissioners meeting back in April, the tribe announced it had asked Sen. Larry Craig to sponsor legislation that would aid the tribe in obtaining a loan guarantee for about $20 million.

The current senate energy bill has a $20 million cap on loans to tribal waste-to-energy projects, further fueling the suspicions among WTE protesters that the tribe is striking deals on Capitol Hill. The project already has the support of the Boundary County commissioners, who have made it part of the county's strategic plan.

"Part of that plan is to let the tribe manage 200,000 acres of federal wilderness land," says Linda Langness, from the grassroots group Boundary County Concerned Citizens, which is opposed to the plant. "Are they just going to burn it? If that's the case, it's only going to last for a couple of years, and then they have to switch to urban waste." Langness says she got the White House e-mail from "someone" who works at the Ranger District.

The Kootenai Tribe did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Since the proposed plant is located on tribal land, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the EPA -- not the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The EPA has previously stated that a plant of this magnitude would be considered a significant source of air pollution and would have to comply with the same standards as one built outside of tribal land.

"We met with the tribe back in March and explained the application process," says Dan Meyer of the EPA's Region 10 office in Seattle. "I know they have since hired a consultant and they need to set up a meteorological tower to measure meteorological data so they can predict the environmental impact of the plant on its neighbors -- but we haven't heard from them since."

The Kootenai Tribe cannot begin the construction of the plant without the necessary permits on the books.

Aside from the air and water quality issues, the plant will also generate truck traffic in the area -- as many as two trucks an hour, 16 hours a day.

So far, more than 600 people have signed a petition opposing the proposed plant, but some protesters are concerned that even the EPA won't be able to stop the plant.

"The EPA thing is just a rubber stamp," says Pavia.

Langness says she is determined to follow the project as closely as she can.

"I think the people involved in it think it's a done deal," she says, adding that county neighbors in British Columbia, just 25 miles north of Bonners Ferry, are also concerned about the plant.

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