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Commentaries and editorials

Chamber Official Silenced at BPA Hearing

by Bert Caldwell
The Spokesman Review
- October 7, 1999

Government affairs director can't testify on rates because Kaiser shaped statement, judge rules

An official of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce was barred from testifying at a Bonneville Power Administration rate hearing Wednesday night when he told the presiding judge Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. had helped prepare his statement.

Dan Kirschner, the chamber's government affairs director, also said Kaiser had suggested he appear at the hearing, one of eight scheduled around the Northwest to take public testimony on power rates that will take effect in October 2000.

Bonneville Administrator Judi Johansen will decide next year who gets the agency's power and at what price.

Kaiser, as a customer that is party to the case, cannot submit statements at the public forums.

Hearing Judge Helen Edwards, who asked about a potential Kaiser role, angrily told Kirschner to take his seat when he revealed the connection.

"I find that totally reprehensible," she said, adding that the aluminum maker was using the chamber to plead its case in public.

Outside the hearing room, Kirschner said his testimony would do nothing more than reflect positions the chamber has consistently taken in support of Kaiser.

"I was frustrated," he said. "I feel like our 1,800 members have been shut down."

Kaiser Vice President Peter Forsyth said he would object to the judge's ruling and also point out that, as shareholders, most of the company's employees face the same prohibition as Kirschner.

But locked-out members of the United Steelworkers of America attended the meeting in force. Almost 100 demonstrated outside the DoubleTree Hotel in the Valley for an hour before taking seats in the hearing room.

The Steelworkers want Bonneville to include a "Good Corporate Citizenship Clause" that withholds inexpensive federal power from companies with poor environmental, safety or labor records.

"This is very important to 3,000 families," said John Witt, head of a Steelworker unit that represents clerical workers at Kaiser's Mead smelter.

He compared the restrictions to those placed on scholarship recipients. If they violate the conditions of their gift, he said, it's lifted.

Witt and other speakers condemned the environmental and safety record Kaiser has compiled during the year-old strike-turned-lockout, citing fines for air pollution and an explosion at the company's Gramercy, La., refinery.

"The Steelworkers are simply asking for fairness," he said.

Don Andre, the assistant director of the Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs, said the low rates smelters have traditionally received were part of a bargain in which owners, in return, provided good jobs.

"Continuing the lockout totally undermines their claim to subsidized power," he said. "The deal's off, or at least it should be."

Forsyth rejected the contention the smelters are subsidized. By purchasing power during off hours when it would otherwise be wasted, he said, the smelters actually help keep residential rates down.

He also said Kaiser has been a good citizen. "We'll meet any standard," he said.

Forsyth also said introducing non-economic issues into the rate debate would set a dangerous precedent.

Is Bonneville going to impose citizen tests on its utility customers, or even their customers? he asked.

Power expenses account for one-third the cost of producing aluminum. Smelter owners say the new rate, which would last into 2006, puts them on the edge of economic viability.

Bert Caldwell
Chamber Official Silenced at BPA Hearing
The Spokesman Review October 7, 1999

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