This article was updated to include additional information that appeared in the March 23 print issue of the newspaper.
Alcoa Corporation announced it would permanently close the Intalco aluminum smelter in Ferndale.
In a March 16 news release, Alcoa announced the closure and said AltaGas would subsequently develop the area. AltaGas is a Calgary, Alberta-based energy infrastructure company and owns Petrogas Ferndale Terminal at Cherry Point.
Alcoa curtailed Intalco in 2020, laying off nearly 700 union workers, because low aluminum prices made operations unprofitable. The Ferndale plant opened in 1966.
“The Intalco smelter site operated for nearly 55 years, and we’ve spent significant time evaluating options for the asset, including a potential sale,” said Alcoa president and CEO Roy Harvey in a statement. “Our analysis, however, indicates that the facility cannot be competitive for the long-term.”
In 2021, AltaGas acquired the rights to own and develop about 1,600 acres at the Intalco site, including the plant, transportation and utility infrastructure. AltaGas also purchased Intalco’s wharf and pier in 2016.
“AltaGas is currently exploring potential development which would align with Washington state and Whatcom County’s climate ambitions and provide long-term, sustainable benefits to the community and the local economy,” said Randy Toone, president midstream at AltaGas, in a statement.
Toone added that AltaGas understood the importance of the site to the community and would work with stakeholders, tribes and Alcoa to ensure the development positively contributes to the energy transition and is beneficial to the community.
AltaGas spokesperson Stephanie Cook said she was unable to give detailed information on the projects as they are still in the early stages of development.
“We are still evaluating how the land can be used in a way that supports the ongoing energy transition, potentially utilizes existing infrastructure and is consistent with the community’s values,” Cook wrote in an email.
AltaGas hopes to release more information on its plans for the area in mid-April, Cook said.
Blue Wolf Capital Partners, a New York City-based private equity firm, was interested in restarting the smelter but ultimately could not secure an energy contract with Bonneville Power Administration for a large supply of power at low rates. Blue Wolf abandoned negotiations with BPA last December after it obtained contracts with Alcoa and union workers.
Alcoa’s announcement comes nearly two months after a January 18 letter in which union leaders asked Harvey to halt plans to demolish the smelter. Intalco workers said they saw a change in smelter activity that pointed to the facility closing. An Alcoa spokesperson had said the company was evaluating its options at the time.
Some of the site’s 19 employees will stay to close the plant, according to Alcoa.
Luke Ackerson, a representative for the remaining union workers, said he didn’t know when the layoffs would occur.
“From the union’s perspective, this is another example of where job losses could have been avoided if the United States government would do what every other country in the world has done with their aluminum smelters, and supply electricity at affordable rates,” he said.
Ackerson added that U.S aluminum smelters cannot compete in the global market under current conditions and smelter closures will continue until all of the country’s primary aluminum is imported.
Intalco was the last operating smelter west of the Mississippi when it shut down. During the nearly three-year battle to reopen the smelter, proponents raised concerns on national security as domestic aluminum production moves to Russia and China.
Last year, $10 million was added to the state’s budget for environmental improvements if the smelter restarted.
While the union is focusing on meeting the needs of its current members at Intalco, Ackerson said development by AltaGas could be welcomed by former Intalco employees.
“We are also encouraged by AltaGas considering development at the Intalco site that could bring more family wage jobs to the area,” he said.
Don Goldberg, the port of Bellingham’s director of economic development, has worked closely on the issue since the smelter stopped production nearly three years ago. Goldberg said he believes Alcoa will demolish the aluminum plant and AltaGas is considering building a large green hydrogen facility, though AltaGas couldn’t confirm this information.
“We are disappointed it wasn’t able to be achieved but we are putting our attention to supporting what could be there next and we’re talking with the new potential ownership of the facility,” Goldberg said.
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