RAVENSWOOD - Monday at around 8 p.m., the clock struck proverbial midnight for the idle aluminum smelting (potrooms) plant adjacent to Constellium Rolled Products, south of Ravenswood. Century Aluminum issued a statement dashing any flickering hope of a restart of the operation shuttered since February, 2009 and the restoration of a portion of 650 jobs lost with that curtailment.
In a prepared statement, the Chicago, IL-based company said “The decision to permanently close the Ravenswood plant is based on the inability to secure a competitive power contract for the smelter, compounded by challenging aluminum market conditions largely driven by increased exports of aluminum from China. As a result, the economics of restarting and operating the (Ravenswood) facility are unfavorable.”
“We have worked diligently with local, state and federal officials, along with the power company, to reopen the smelter but we have been unable to secure a long-term, competitive power contract,” said Michael Bless, Century CEO. “We are convinced that all of these parties did everything within their ability to support our efforts to restart the Ravenswood smelter, and we are grateful for their commitment. We deeply regret the impact of this action on our employees and on the local community, and share in the profound disappointment. We will now turn our attention to the efficient disposition of the facility; we are committed to working with state leadership and the other relevant constituencies in this endeavor.”
Built in 1957, the Ravenswood smelter has four plot lines with a full operating capacity of 170,000 tonnes per year.
Century Aluminum Company owns primary aluminum capacity in the United States and Iceland. Century’s corporate offices are located in Chicago, IL.
The company announcement was met with disappointment at both the state and local level.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who came to the plant a few years back in the saga to sign legislation (that has included tax breaks—$20 million worth--and alternative power rate structures over the past three years) aimed at aiding a restart, called for the company to reconsider.
“I am disappointed in today’s announcement,”: Tomblin said Monday night, “and have asked Century Aluminum officials to reconsider their decision to permanently close the company’s Ravenswood facility. We have worked diligently with company as well as local, state and federal officials to find a solution that works for all parties, and we remain willing to offer assistance moving forward. If this decision remains final, I encourage Century Aluminum to work cooperatively with its retirees to address their benefit needs, and the West Virginia Development Office will assist in marketing the site to a new user.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito echoed the disappointment at the company decision. “The announcement that Century Aluminum will permanently close its Ravenswood aluminum smelter is a deep disappointment for Jackson County, Century retirees, and the federal, state and local officials who worked hard to reopen the facility. Following the closure, it si my hope that Century will fulfill the commitments it made to retirees.”
The company made no friends or enhanced its influence when it curtailed retiree benefits shortly after the closure in 2009. Benefits were partially restored as part of a move toward a restart of operations which was touted as a company priority in 2012.
The West Virginia Legislature in turn passed a bill in 2012 to set up a tax credit and allow for special power prices for energy-intensive industry with the stipulation that such industries request the rate from the Public Service Commission. Century Aluminum did that in May, 2012, with the footnote that its power rates would rise and fall with fluctuations in aluminum market prices, and making up the difference when metal prices were low would need to be the responsibility of other Appalachian Power customers.
In October, 2013, the PSC issued a 72-page decision basically giving Century the rates they wanted, but putting responsibility for any shortage in power payments at the company’s doorstep alone, as well as spelling out other requirements in terms of power usage, employment, investments and fixed assets at the Ravenswood smelter. Century balked, and after a reconsideration by the PSC was denied, another smelting facility in Sebree, Kentucky in 2013.
One year ago, Century CEO Michael Bless said restarting the Ravenswood smelter was “right at the top of our focus list.” And as recently as May, 2015, the company had still been talking about negotiations with Appalachian Power.
Ironically, Century Aluminum’s net income for the first quarter of 2015 was reported at $73.8 million, as compared to a loss of $20.1 million in the first quarter of 2014. Sales and shipping of primary aluminum also were increased as compared to last year’s first quarter.
“We are all disappointed that Century has closed the door on being part of the Ravenswood community. This news surprises no one who has been paying attention. If the heart demonstrated by former employees and retirees had anything to do with it, Century would have come back years ago. Unfortunately, political and economic factors were far bigger than our small town,” said Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle. “Century is missing out on one of West Virginia’s best cities. Our town was recently named West Virginia’s second safest city and home of the state’s eighth best high school. Ravenswood’s business growth rate was 12.4% during fiscal year 2013-14. (This is the highest rate among West Virginia cities large enough to contain at least 100 businesses.)
“Like it or not, the people of Ravenswood have already absorbed the blow from losing Century. Its closure is a mere formality at this point. Our river city is filled with tough, beautiful people who are already turning our community around. If you are thinking of doing business in the Mid-Ohio Valley, Ravenswood is still the best place for you.”
“I think because [Century is] a definite [closure] that makes it worse because before [the announcement] there was a glimmer of hope that they might reopen – there was always that chance that perhaps these people would go back to work and people would have the opportunity – heaven knows Jackson County needs an industry – another source of business there. I think knowing that its final has probably squelched hopes and dreams that it might have reopened. Now that there’s not any hope of it reopening – I think that will definitely have affected many people – not just Ripley and not just Ravenswood – even the surrounding areas that worked there and had dreams of coming back,” said Ripley Mayor Carolyn Radar.
Mayor Radar also commented on the positive impact of Jackson County’s current industries such as Constellium, “This county is very blessed to have Constellium here. They make themselves visible for our citizens in this county. I think it’s wonderful and they are to be commended for their generosity. I think it’s a wonderful thing that they are doing for the people of Jackson County.”