Baucus Presses BPA to Help
by Tristan Scott
WHITEFISH - With the aim of galvanizing negotiations between Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. and the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Wednesday pressed the agency's administrator to finalize an energy contract and restore jobs to the shuttered plant. Columbia Falls Aluminum shut down at the end of October 2009, forcing the layoffs of nearly 90 workers as high energy prices and poor market conditions made operations unprofitable.
In a meeting with BPA Administrator Stephen J. Wright, the Democratic senator called for a timeline that will lead to a long-term energy agreement so the plant can return to production.
Asking Wright to finalize a power contract with CFAC and do everything possible to move forward on a plan to reopen the company, Baucus cited the potential for as many as 350 jobs with good wages if the negotiations are brought to a successful close.
"Hundreds of families are waiting in limbo for the jobs that I hope are not being held up by red tape. It's time to reopen Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and bring back hundreds of jobs in the Flathead," according to a statement from Baucus released by the senator's office. "Unemployment in Flathead County remains at an unacceptable 10.6 percent. Direct jobs from finalizing this agreement would lower that number into the single digits. I'm going to keep pressing BPA and Glencore to move forward so we can reopen CFAC."
Since Baucus' last meeting with Wright, BPA has completed an environmental review but has not closed a power sales agreement with Glencore, which is CFAC's parent company. The deal is expected to pave the way to reopening CFAC by providing power to the facility.
BPA is the federal agency that markets power from 31 hydroelectric dams and a nuclear plant in the Pacific Northwest.
Last year, the agency proposed a power sales agreement that would provide 140 average megawatts to CFAC and allow two of the smelter's five potlines to operate. Before entering into the agreement, BPA was required to complete an Equivalent Benefits Test, which assesses whether the benefits of providing power to CFAC will exceed the service costs.
Mike Hansen, a BPA spokesman, said an Equivalent Benefits Test was completed in December and, at the time, showed that a 4 1/2-year contract period was feasible. Before a contract is reached, a second test will have to be completed in the current market conditions, which are not likely to significantly modify the offer.
"We are continuing to talk with CFAC representatives, and basically we have the same contract on the table," Hansen said. "When they determine that it makes business sense to move forward we will do our best to finalize that contract as soon as possible."
Former CFAC spokesman Haley Beaudry said he was pleased that Baucus met with the BPA administrator, but said bleak market conditions persist and continue to present challenges to reopening the plant.
"The market conditions for reaching a contract and committing to a restart just are not there right now," Beaudry said. "The market conditions are roughly the same as when CFAC shut down. Everyone is still working diligently to get this done, and we still believe that we are going to get this thing restarted some time. We just don't know when."
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