Restoring power to aluminum plant near Ferndale will boost jobs, environment
By LARRY BROWN
(March 14, 2022) — When it was closed two years ago, Intalco Aluminum, which has provided jobs to thousands of union members over the past 50 years, was the last aluminum smelter in the entire western U.S.
An alliance of Intalco’s former managers and workers, backed by the investment firm Blue Wolf Capital Partners, now has the opportunity to buy Intalco from Alcoa and restart it. There is overwhelming community support: Washington state will help fund state-of-the-art modernization technology with local leaders working side by side, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) is negotiating a new contract and the Lummi Nation will help with job training for its members to resume their longstanding partnership with Intalco.
Restarting Intalco will provide 700 mostly union jobs at the plant and thousands more throughout Washington. Putting workers back to work means that families can keep their homes and local businesses, and rural communities can recover from COVID-19’s impact.
That’s an important reason why IAM and the Washington State Labor Council are part of the effort, but it’s far from the only reason we need Intalco.
Intalco, located in Ferndale about nine miles north of Bellingham, is the only remaining aluminum producer in the entire western U.S. and will be one of only two U.S. producers of green aluminum. The restarted Intalco will decarbonize manufacturing and use multiple modern state-of-the-art environmental controls. Every pound of green aluminum sustainably produced by Intalco under strict environmental standards using renewable energy is one less pound produced by China using coal, from the Middle East using methane, or from Russia. Restarting Intalco will help our state meet its environmental goals and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 750,000 tons in Washington with modernized green-plant technology and an estimated 4 million tons globally each year by supplanting foreign coal-fired aluminum.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a powerful reminder of another reason. Right now, U.S. industry imports most of the aluminum it needs — much of it from places like China, the Middle East and Russia. We need American-made aluminum for Boeing aircraft, to make electric cars and for national defense. Intalco will restore a domestic supply, one that isn’t subject to bottlenecks. President Joe Biden and elected officials of both parties have emphasized the importance of making sure America has safe domestic, environmentally sound supplies of critical materials like aluminum. Intalco can help.
The only roadblock to restarting Intalco is the Bonneville Power Administration — a federal agency that answers to the people. BPA provided the electricity that made Intalco work for more than 50 years. Congress in 1980 protected BPA’s then-existing industrial customers — including Intalco by name — but most of those industrial customers have closed down and moved their jobs out of the country. Intalco is one of the few remaining.
BPA administrator John Hairston told me and other union members that jobs are an important part of the agency’s mission. He pledged to work with us — but the very next week BPA walked away and said it wouldn’t provide the pricing for power that Intalco needs to restart and restore the 700 lost jobs. Sadly, BPA seems to be acting more like a private corporation than our regional economic protector: Selling its extra power outside our region to the highest bidder rather than restoring power to Intalco at the discounted industrial rate the facility got for 50 years. BPA has enough surplus power to restart Intalco without impacting its existing Washington preference customers.
BPA is exporting its power and our jobs.
Representing workers across our state, I am committed to standing with Gov. Jay Inslee, Whatcom County, and our senators and representatives to convince BPA to restore power to one of its longest-standing customers. Working together, we can restore jobs, restore our community, protect our environment and protect our nation. For the good of our state and country, let’s hope we succeed.
Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. The WSLC is the largest union organization in the state, representing the interests of more than 550,000 members in 600-plus union organizations. Learn more at wslc.org. This column originally appeared in Saturday’s edition of the Seattle Times, and is posted here with the author’s permission.