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Aluminum Smelting's Questionable Future In The Northwest

Once upon a time, the Northwest was home to ten massive aluminum smelters. As of today, just one still operates. And the Alcoa company plans to idle that smelter near Ferndale, Washington, indefinitely in June.

Is it the end for a one-time pillar of the Northwest economy or merely a pause?

The idling of the Alcoa Wenatchee smelter at the beginning of January cost around 420 jobs. Those workers earned roughly double the average annual wage in Chelan County. Another 465 jobs hang in the balance at Alcoa's other aluminum smelter outside Ferndale in Northwest Washington's Whatcom County.

"It is important to notice the difference between a curtailment and a closure,” Alcoa Intalco Works plant manager Barry Hullett emphasized during a presentation this month at the Washington Legislature. “When we curtail a plant we keep it in operating condition so it may be restarted. That's different than a closure."

In a follow up interview with public radio, Hullett said there is "no set timeline" for the curtailment duration. In fact, the wind-down at Ferndale was recently pushed back by three months.

"We are a competitive plant,” Hullett said. “We have a lot of things going for us."

Hullett said he is hopeful that market conditions "will change for the better." Notably, the "very low" price for aluminum needs to come up. It plummeted around 30 percent last year.

"The metal price shouldn't stay at this level. It's at historic lows,” Hullett said. “So commodity cycles should change. Hopefully when that does, we'll be positioned to keep operations going in Washington state.”

‘I was counting on Alcoa'

Smelter worker Chris Morales of Wenatchee, Washington remembers the day he learned his job making aluminum was going away. He got a text on a day off in November.

"It is a feeling of surprise, panic. Now what?” Morales said. “My wife has a good job; I'm fortunate for that. But still, I was counting on Alcoa, which has been around for years."

His former employer insists it's not done making aluminum in the Northwest. But doubts run high among the laid off workers about the future of the 64-year-old smelter in Wenatchee.

"The advice was something along the lines of, 'You need to go find another job,’” Morales said.

So Morales has decided to move on. He has served as a volunteer firefighter in his spare time and now hopes to get hired there in a career position.

The Northwest’s aluminum boom … and bust

Low-cost hydropower and federal defense spending during World War II and the Korean War spawned the aluminum industry in the Northwest in a relatively short time period. At its peak, the energy intensive industry employed more than 10,000 workers at smelters in Longview, Goldendale, Spokane, Tacoma, Wenatchee, Ferndale and Vancouver, Washington; in Troutdale and The Dalles, Oregon; and in Columbia Falls, Montana.

Only a few of those smelters endured a spike in electricity prices in the year 2000. Now the survivors face tough competition from low priced exports from China.

Longtime smelter electrician Kirk Peterson and equipment operator Kelley Woodard mourn the end an era.

"It's the wage. It's the job. It's the comfortable living, you know,” Peterson said.

"It is devastating I think to the Northwest,” said Kelley Woodard, who is also Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council president. “Seattle has their Boeings, you know. But I think this was always the great thing about these smelters, they are usually located in rural communities where it was such a huge supplier of these types of jobs."

Woodard's personal take is that the aluminum industry is "more than likely done" in the Northwest, but he's not ready to write it off completely yet.

Learning new trades

Unions representing laid off smelter workers around the country have petitioned the U.S. Department of Labor for special dislocated worker benefits under a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance. The federal agency is currently investigating whether these layoffs are related to international trade. If confirmed, federal funding would provide a significant boost in retraining benefits and weekly cash payments similar to an unemployment check while workers upgrade their skills or learn new trades in college.

Wenatchee Valley College, the closest community college to Alcoa's Wenatchee Works, reported Tuesday that 40 former smelter workers enrolled in winter classes within days of their last shifts. The college is expecting an enrollment surge of 60 more when spring quarter begins.

In a news release, the college said it hired temporary adjunct faculty to increase capacity for the most sought-after programs, which included machining, electronics, and environmental systems and refrigeration technology.

Wenatchee Valley College requested additional worker retraining funding from the state and received a grant from the Alcoa Foundation to help cover the unexpected surge in instruction costs and financial aid.

In Whatcom County last week, planned outreach meetings under a state "rapid response" protocol for mass layoffs were put on hold after the surprise delay to Alcoa's planned curtailment of its Intalco Works smelter.

What are they doing now?

Clayton Verellen, age 33
Alcoa Wenatchee smelter worker for five years, pot tender
Family: Married with two kids, ages 8 and 1.
“I liked being a pot tender,” Verellen said about his job in the heart of the smelter. He had ownership over a section and could see the fruits of his work. “If you did good, you saw the benefits right away. If you did bad, you saw the consequences generally right away too.”
What next: Verellen is coaching his son’s ski racing team this winter and reconnecting with family, before going back to school in spring for a course of study to be determined.

Chris Morales, age 39
Alcoa Wenatchee smelter worker for five years, mostly fixing furnaces
Family: Married with three little girls
"The job is far from glamorous," said Morales. He will miss the camaraderie. "What I enjoyed was the relationship I built with my crewmembers. You learn to rely on people to get work done."
What next: Hoping to be hired as a career firefighter in Douglas County after serving many years as a volunteer with a county fire district.

Kirk Peterson, age 46
Alcoa Wenatchee smelter worker for 18 years, electrician
Family: Divorced, two young kids
"I loved what I did," said Peterson about his time at the smelter. "It wasn't a total shock," to learn the plant would be idled. "We had heard that we were losing three, four or five million dollars a month. We all kind of thought in the back of our minds that at some point they got to cut the bleeding," Peterson recalled. "It was still a surreal feeling."
What next: Peterson's electrician skills are transferable, but he is not thrilled about the likely need to travel to far-flung job sites.

Kelley Woodard, age 56
Alcoa Wenatchee smelter worker for 32½ years, equipment operator
President, Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council
Family: Married with one son in college and one other grown son
"I've seen it all, been there a long time," said Woodard. This is turning out differently than past down cycles, though. "We would have our low times. We'd curtail, but then it wouldn't be as bad as what everybody predicted and we would come back. So I was having hope that somehow this would be like that. It would be rough, but we would get through it somehow."
What next: Woodard still reports to work as part of a skeleton crew that monitors and maintains vital systems at the Wenatchee smelter. He does not know how long this unexpected extension in his job will last, but hopes to get "at least one more year" in before taking retirement.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.