COLUMBIA FALLS – As it stands now, Columbia Falls Aluminum Company is a ghost town. The massive plant, set on hundreds of acres below Teakettle Mountain, housed hundreds of workers when it was actively producing aluminum; now, the parking lots gather snow and the buildings sit quietly.
CFAC curtailed aluminum production last October, citing prohibitive energy prices. It laid off the company’s remaining workers, over 80 of them, in the transition. The aluminum company, owned by Glencore, has been in negotiations with Bonneville Power Administration for the past year about a long-term contract.
So far, nothing is concrete. But U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently wrote a letter urging BPA to sign a contract with CFAC, a move he said could create up to 350 jobs here. Tester also met with members of the CFAC workers’ union, the Aluminum Workers Trades Council, last week to discuss the possibility of reopening the plant.
According to AWTC President Dave Toavs, CFAC is closer now than ever to firing up again.
“This is as close as we’ve been since the curtailment,” Toavs said.
Toavs declined to identify his sources of that information, but said, “it’s very close; whatever’s going on, they’re close.” Spring would be an optimal time to start because of the electricity produced by the winter run-off, he added.
Toavs told Tester, however, that he was skeptical the plant would restart production if it didn’t happen this spring.
“If we don’t fire this spring, I don’t know,” Toavs said. “We’re at a crossroads.”
The union members asserted that restarting the plant is difficult. In fact, it’s quite dangerous and involves plenty of hard work. They noted that it would take two to three months to get up to the production levels that employ 350 people.
“It’s going to be a huge undertaking to start this up,” Toavs told Tester at the Dec. 10 meeting.
Tester told the union members that he was confident a power arrangement could be struck between CFAC and BPA, whether it was for five years or three and a half.
“I think BPA is going to try their best to do it,” he said.
The goal has always been to reopen the facility and start production again, CFAC spokesman Haley Beaudry said last week. The timetable to do so, though, is uncertain from the company’s point of view.
“We’re pushing to reopen the facility by noon,” Beaudry said. “Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. There is no schedule.”
CFAC opened in 1955 as an arm of the Anaconda Company. At its height, it employed roughly 1,500 people, Beaudry said. For decades, BPA sold at-cost power to its large industrial clients, including CFAC. But prices continued to increase last year due to litigation, according to the Associated Press, and CFAC could not find cheaper power on the open market.
Beginning production again would be a boon to the local economy, Beaudry said, but the ultimate decision comes down to the bottom line for the parent company.
“It’s strictly a business decision. If the costs can be balanced with the revenues from the sale of aluminum metal, I mean, if it makes sense from a business standpoint, then you reopen,” Beaudry said.
Beaudry said he has spoken with Tester about CFAC’s negotiations with BPA, as well as U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.
Katie Pruder-Scruggs, a spokesperson for BPA, said the power administration has yet to respond to Tester’s letter, but added, “we are still in discussions with CFAC and we are hopeful that we can come to an agreement.”
Other entities have expressed interest in leasing or buying parts of the massive property in the past year. Kellie Danielson, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, said the Flathead County Economic Development Authority considered the site for a rail-served industrial park.
The FCEDA received a $1.147-million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to buy property for such a park in September. The grant would be used to reimburse the economic authority for the property once it was purchased.
Danielson said FCEDA entered into discussions with Glencore about the property, but Glencore decided not to sell. No other sites have worked out for the industrial park.
“Right now, we’re just kind of at a standstill,” she said. “We have spent many months looking at property that would fit our criteria and just haven’t been able to find a willing seller, so we probably won’t go forward.”
Start-up companies have also approached Glencore about leasing parts of the property. The corporate giant was receptive, but the focus on restarting the plant does not make leasing opportunities look fruitful, Danielson said.
“I believe Glencore when they say they want to reopen that facility; it is feasible,” Danielson said. “We hope they do restart, we’d love to see those jobs come back.”
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