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Alcoa to announce modernization plans later this month

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MASSENA - Alcoa officials are expected to reach a decision by the end of this month that could have a significant impact on the company’s future in the area.

Alcoa spokeswoman Laurie Marr said company officials will make a decision by March 31 on whether to proceed with the modernization of its Massena operations. That project is estimated to cost $600 million and is a requirement for the aluminum manufacturer to continue receiving low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority.

Ms. Marr declined to provide further comment on when the decision will be announced.

An agreement between Alcoa and NYPA allows the company to receive 239 megawatts of additional power for restarting its Massena East plant. In exchange, a complete modernization plan will have to be submitted to the company’s executive board for approval by March 31. If approved, construction will begin by June.

The March 31 deadline is associated with a board of directors meeting scheduled for that month, Ms. Marr said in October.

NYPA officials said if Alcoa fails to reach a decision by March 31, or fails to begin construction by June 31, then the agency would review Alcoa’s contract that guarantees the company low-cost hydropower.

Many say modernization is critical to Alcoa’s future in Massena, pointing out low-cost hydropower is one of the most significant advantages to manufacturing in the region.

Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said low-cost hydropower is “obviously” the most important factor in Alcoa continuing its operations in Massena. For this reason he says many in the community are eager to hear the company’s decision on modernization.

“This project is vitally important to Massena’s future, and I hope the decision is a positive one,” Mr. Gray said. “We don’t like to think about it, but a negative decision would just be horrible for the community.”

Mayor James F. Hidy pointed out Alcoa has long been a staple for industry and employment in Massena, having operated in the region since 1902, according to the company’s website.

“Alcoa has long been the benchmark for industry in the north country and Massena. It’s been here for over a hundred years, and in that time it’s fed thousands of families and we’re hoping it’ll stay and feed thousands more,” Mr. Hidy said.

One factor that may affect Alcoa’s decision to modernize is the scope of the Grasse River remediation project, which will be chosen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The proposed remediation project comes with an estimated price tag of $245 million, a cost that would be entirely footed by Alcoa.

Other proposed options for cleanup range from a three-year, $114 million option to an 18-year, $1.3 billion option, EPA Remedial Project Manager Young S. Chang said.

Local government and economic development officials had previously expressed concern that if the cleanup proves too costly, Alcoa may choose not to move ahead on the proposed modernization. At a public hearing on remediation last November, many Massena residents expressed support for the proposed cleanup, saying a more costly cleanup option might affect Alcoa’s plans to modernize, and thus, might threaten the company’s future in the region.

“Any solution that does not result in a modernized Alcoa (plant) is no solution - not for us,” Michael Almasian, executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena, said at the hearing.

Ms. Chang said the federal agency is still in the process of reviewing public comment and has yet to make a decision. She said the EPA has no deadline for its decision.

EPA officials previously estimated a decision on remediation would be reached one to three months after the close of public comment Nov. 29.

Ms. Chang said the EPA has been consulting with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Health and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which has expressed support for a more thorough, and costly remediation plan.

At a public hearing held on the Mohawk reservation last November, a number of Akwesasne residents voiced support for a cleanup option that would include dredging the entire Grasse River. That plan that would require more than $1 billion and 18 years to complete.

“The EPA is obligated to make those responsible pay for the best remedy,” said Alma Ransom, a former St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council chief. “There’s no guarantee the capping will stay in place. We need more dredging and a thorough cleaning.”

Alcoa officials have stated the company is willing to commit to the EPA’s proposal, but maintains that a cheaper, capping-only remedy would be just as effective.

“Alcoa is prepared to move ahead with the EPA’s proposed remedy even though it’s not necessarily what we would have chosen,” said Kevin L. McKnight, director of environmental health, safety and sustainability for Alcoa. “We respect the near-shore dredging but we think capping is effective near the shore.”

Ms. Marr declined to comment on whether increased remediation costs may affect the company’s decision to modernize.

Alcoa employees have mixed feelings about the link between the river cleanup proposal and the modernization project, according to United Steelworkers Local 450-A President David W. LaClair Jr. Some are hesitant at the potential cleanup cost, while others are excited that the modernization deadline is approaching and that the EPA is proceeding with the cleanup proposal.

Company officials told workers in a visit in 2011 that Alcoa officials would need to know the river cleanup costs before it could modernize, Mr. LaClair said previously.

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