The reopening of Ferndale's Intalco aluminum smelter has been portrayed by project proponents as needing only a favorable power deal with the Bonneville Power Administration to get the plant rolling quickly, restoring hundreds of family-wage jobs as early as next month.
BPA officials cast serious doubt on that last week, saying the agency likely could not deliver the required electricity to run the plant on its own, or, because of legal mandates, sell that power at a requested price likely to make the plant financially feasible.
But the energy deal is not the only impediment to a speedy plant restart.
While it does not preclude an eventual reopening, an administrative order from the Washington Department of Ecology appears to make a quick startup of the plant impossible.
The order was issued in January 2021, less than a year after the facility's curtailment in mid-2020. It requires Intalco to prepare a “Four-Factor Analysis” plan for Ecology to review and mandates the facility implement air emission control measures. The plan must be submitted at least 180 days prior to the facility's restart.
“The analysis will be based on the facility's permitted emission limits and will assess potential emission control measures against ... the cost of compliance; time necessary for compliance; energy and non-air quality impacts of compliance; and remaining useful life of the source,” according to the order.
Failure to submit the analysis may result in fines of up to $10,000 per day per violation. Representatives from Intalco signed the order, agreeing to the terms last year.
“The four-factor analysis is required to be submitted at least 180 days prior to restarting any of their potlines,” said Ecology's Dave Bennett, a communications manager in the Solid Waste Management Program. “Intalco has not submitted their four-factor analysis yet.”
If the plan was submitted and approved today, Intalco would be able to resume operations mid-September, much later than an optimistic start date offered by labor officials and other project proponents.
Larry Brown, president of the Washington State Labor Council, told Cascadia Daily News last week that the project proponent, Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC, was ready to start hiring workers “as soon as they secure the power contract,” with a possible plant opening as early as late April.
Opposition to that cut-rate power deal, described by some critics as a direct subsidy to a private company, continued to grow this week.
“Not only would that plant take away the clean, renewable hydro serving other Northwest communities ... but it would be illegal under the terms outlined by Congress that regulate how BPA is to sell its lowest-cost power in the Northwest,” Public Power Council's executive director Scott Simms wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed published Thursday.
“There is a long history in the Northwest of aluminum plants closing and reopening due to the volatile nature of aluminum as a global commodity,” Simms wrote. “Each time, BPA’s public power customers have been left paying the bill.”
The Public Power Council represents consumer-owned electric utilities that purchase power from the BPA. Simms op-ed was in response to a previous commentary by Brown, who claimed “BPA stands in the way of green-aluminum jobs in Whatcom County,” and noted that the Ferndale plant “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.”
Though the contract with BPA has been called the “last hurdle” to reopening, a restart also is threatened by other obstacles, including housing availability and filling jobs in an economy where employment opportunities are plentiful and employees are not.