Three years after Ferndale’s Intalco aluminum smelter curtailed operations, the facility may be preparing to close its doors permanently.
Since it was mothballed in 2020, the facility has been operated by a skeleton crew — about a dozen people monitoring the site, keeping the lights on, the doors locked and the equipment ready to go — in the event a restart could be negotiated.
In recent weeks, the crew has been tasked with dismantling a piece of equipment vital to the smelting process.
“Alcoa recently instructed the group to disassemble and package up a piece of equipment to prepare to move it offsite,” explained Luke Ackerson, a business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) District 160. “It’s a piece of equipment that’s important to the smelting process, and would make a restart extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
Intalco’s parent company, the Alcoa Corporation, said demolition is not currently planned, but rumors of a permanent closure flew when IAMAW called on the company to keep the doors open.
“I write to urge you to work with the IAMAW and all parties to pause the planned demolition of the Intalco smelter with the goal of restarting this vitally important facility,” IAMAW President Robert Martinez, Jr. wrote to Alcoa CEO Roy Harvey last week. The union, the letter stated, has worked to assemble a coalition of supporters "who understand the importance of preserving a domestic aluminum industry in the United States and the critical role the Intalco Works smelter in Ferndale, Washington plays.”
Restarting the Ferndale smelter would take years of work, millions of dollars, significant political will and a below-market-rate contract for operational power. While that political will and financial support exist, negotiations to restart the smelter were suspended last year, when potential buyer and restart proponent Blue Wolf Capital Partners withdrew from discussions after failing to secure an energy contract.
“Alcoa negotiated a possible divestiture of the plant, but the potential buyer withdrew from discussions in December 2022, citing its inability to acquire a competitive energy agreement that would be necessary to support its acquisition,” an Alcoa spokesperson said Friday.
Hope remains, though, for a facility restart and the return of 700 union jobs. Federal legislators, including Rep. Rick Larsen, have sought alternatives to restart the smelter as a “green” facility. Options included use of the federal Defense Production Act to get the potlines running again.
Martinez wrote there is “a path forward for this facility to reopen and once again start producing strategically important domestic aluminum and put more than 700 IAMAW members back to work in Ferndale.”
Alcoa attempted to quash the rumors of demolition Friday.
“The Intalco smelter remains in a curtailed state and Alcoa continues to evaluate options for the plant, as we do with any curtailed capacity in our operations portfolio,” Alcoa said in a statement. “Decisions regarding the future of curtailed sites are based on a variety of factors, including global economic conditions, market pricing, energy prices, capital requirements, and the prospects for long-term, sustainable competitiveness. Alcoa seeks viable opportunities for all its curtailed or closed sites to be returned to productive and sustainable use.”
Prior to any scheduled demolition, Alcoa would have to request proper permits from Whatcom County – something the company has not done yet.
“The County has not received a demolition permit application for the Intalco facility,” said Jed Holmes, the county’s community outreach facilitator. “The clean-up of the property would be regulated by other agencies – likely the Department of Ecology at the state level and potentially the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level.”
The demolition permit application requires prior approval from the Northwest Clean Air Agency, as well as closure of septic systems and private utility accounts.
When the facility initially shuttered its doors in mid-2020, Alcoa told employees the company could not compete in the global market for aluminum as production costs rose, aluminum prices fell and foreign competition increased.
Advocates of the smelter restart have long said the country has a dire need for locally sourced aluminum, particularly as international tensions with Russia heat up.
In 2020, the United States imported about $19.1 billion worth of aluminum from 131 countries. Canada is the largest provider, supplying more than a third of the total U.S. imported aluminum. Russia was the seventh-largest supplier, providing about 2.2% of the aluminum imports. And according to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the United States now produces only 1% of the world’s aluminum.
A previous version of this story indicated several layoffs occurred at the site, per a union representative. At this point, no layoffs have occurred, according to new information from another union rep. This story was updated on Feb. 7, 2023 at 4:45 p.m. The Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.
This story has been updated to include more details regarding the process of a potential demolition. This story was updated on Jan. 30 at 1:01 p.m.