Support sought to avert Intalco smelter closure

Published on Thu, Apr 26, 2001 by Soren Velice

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Support sought to avert Intalco smelter closure

By Soren Velice

People from all over Whatcom County packed the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham last week to hear about the Intalco smelter’s future in the face of a Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) request to shut down for two years.

“You can’t put all of the aluminum industry in one bucket,” said chief shop steward Vicki Henley, referring to Kaiser Aluminum closing its works and selling its power at inflated prices. “We sold power back to BPA so they wouldn’t have to go to the open market.” She described BPA acting administrator Steven Wright’s request that all 10 northwest aluminum smelters shut down for two years as “ridiculous.”

“It’s not like a light switch,” she said. “It’s just an unrealistic request altogether; you wouldn’t just ask Boeing to shut down for two years.”

International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) local business representative Clarence Harper agreed. “That’s not a plan,” he said. “That’s a guaranteed commitment that you’ll go away.”

Plant manager Jim Frederick said the plant is one of the cleanest, most efficient smelters in the country, citing a recent governor’s award for pollution prevention and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s naming Intalco landowner of the year. Lloyd Jones, president of Intalco’s U.S. smelting division, said BPA’s stereotype of an old, inefficient industry is simply not true. “That’s something that’s been thrown at them by some of the competitors for energy,” he said. “It doesn’t fit with Intalco at all.”

Closing the plant would be a serious blow to local economies, Frederick said, since its value of $150 million translates to 4.2 percent of local property taxes including $730,000 of Ferndale school district’s budget. He added Intalco’s share of salmon mitigation has amounted to more than $200 milion since the last big power crunch 25 years ago.

Frederick bemoaned BPA’s blended rate proposal, saying $80 per megawatt hour was exorbitant. “I don’t care who you are, nobody can make aluminum profitably with that kind of rate,” he said. Instead, Jones proposed a tiered rate for all customers, industrial or otherwise, that charges $22 per megawatt hour of cheaply produced hydroelectric power and $80 for that bought on the open market to reflect what the power costs BPA. “If you have a certain amount of cheap power and a certain amount of very expensive power, it’s going to encourage everybody to conserve,” Jones said.

IAM’s western general vice president Lee Pearson rallied audience members to do everything they could to save the plant and their jobs. “Every one of you needs to write a letter to your senators and representatives,” he said, “and especially to secretary of energy Spencer Abraham; this plan is not acceptable, and we’ve got to let everybody know Steven Wright is really wrong. IAM cares deeply, and we intend to help you with this fight.”

County executive Pete Kremen said Intalco would need everybody’s help to survive the crisis, including the Bush administration and the community. “I think in the long term, Alcoa has a plan to step up and do what they need to do,” he said, “but in the short term we need BPA to help.” He declared his intent to push conservation throughout the region and gave an example of what the county has done. “I just got the power bill for March two days ago,” he said, “and despite complaints of how cold it is in the courthouse, we reduced our power consumption 31 percent; if everyone in the region was able to conserve 20 to 25 percent, we would not be in a crisis. Conservation, although not a panacea, will go a long way to get over this hump.”
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