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Local leaders react to Alcoa’s decision to close east plant

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MASSENA - Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said through a statement released by his office Wednesday that he is going to hold Alcoa to its agreement to keep 900 jobs in Massena in return for low cost hydropower.

His comments came in the wake of Alcoa’s announcement Wednesday that it would be permanently shutting down the remaing two potlines at its east plant in Massena.

“Representatives from the governor’s office and the New York Power Authority (NYPA) met with senior officials from Alcoa and impressed upon them that we intend to enforce the terms of the long-term power supply contract Alcoa’s receipt of low-cost hydropower from NYPA’s St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Hydroelectric Plant, which requires the company to maintain employment at the plants,” said the governor’s communications director, Melissa DeRosa.

In addition to meeting with Alcoa officials on Wednesday, Ms. DeRosa said an “emergency meeting” was going to be held today in New York City.

“To be clear, we will hold Alcoa accountable to maintain operations of the Massena West smelter and ensure the planned modernization of the Massena East facility proceeds without delay, as required by the contract,” she wrote. “This will be stressed again in an emergency meeting with company officials that we will be holding (today) in New York City. Our goal is to protect jobs while avoiding involuntary layoffs in the north country - and nothing less.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Sen. Joseph A. Griffo (R-Rome), who represents Massena in the state senate.

“Alcoa leaders have assured me that this decision will not affect the company’s modernization plans or its Grasse River remediation project,” he said. “I will make sure the company fulfills its obligations to the New York Power Authority and the state.”

Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said he has also received those same assurances, but he also noted a final decision on whether to complete the modernization project isn’t due until 2015.

When asked if he thought the project would ultimately be completed, Mr. Gray admitted he wasn’t sure.

“It will depend on the economy and what the price of aluminum is,” he said. “If it makes economic sense for them to manufacture aluminum here, I expect they’ll move forward, but unfortunately we can’t control that.”

Mayor James F. Hidy said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the modernization project would eventually be completed.

“From what I was told plans are still to move forward with modernization,” he said. “However, we are two years out and a lot can happen between now and then.”

Mr. Gray and Mr. Hidy said they found out about the closure following a phone call from Plant Manager Bob Lenney, a Massena native, Wednesday afternoon.

While Mr. Gray said he was disappointed by the news, he said that unfortunately he wasn’t surprised.

“It’s disappointing and it certainly saddens me for the employes and their families, but unfortunately it wasn’t fully unexpected,” he said, noting a recent report detailing Alcoa’s fourth-quarter losses of $2.34 billion.

“With reports of Alcoa’s fourth-quarter losses, it’s clear that the economy isn’t doing very well and the aluminum business isn’t a good one right now from a profit standpoint,” he said.

The news though wasn’t all bad, as Mr. Gray also reported hearing that Ford was going to begin constructing its Ford F-150 pickup with all aluminum panels.

“That’s the best-selling truck in America,” he said. “If more automobile manufacturers begin to use aluminum that could be good news for Alcoa and Massena.”

When speaking with Mr. Lenney on Wednesday, Mr. Hidy said he had heard the same thing.

“The word today is the automotive industry is using more aluminum, which could help drive up Alcoa’s revenue and the price of aluminum,” he said, adding that in his mind the company’s announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“It certainly comes at a bad time, with everything we’re trying to do to keep positive and redevelop our downtown,” he said. With everything positive happening, this certainly puts a crinkle in things.”

Also not surprised by the announcement was United Steelworkers Local 450 President David W. LaClair Jr.

“I think that overall the general membership could see this was coming, and with that being said, I think the whole community has been expecting it.”

One person surprised by the announcement was Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie (R-Heuvelton), who despite not representing Massena in the Senate, represents several hundred of Alcoa’s employees who reside in her district.

“I was shocked and deeply disappointed by Alcoa’s surprise announcement of job reductions at Massena’s east plant,” she said through a statement. “Here in the north country, we’re working every day to try to preserve and create jobs for our communities. That’s why upon hearing this news, I immediately reached out to local and state officials, and the governor, to try to find ways we can work together to preserve these jobs.”

State Senator Joseph A. Griffo said he too is working to do what he can for the people impacted by this decision.

“I’m disappointed to hear of Alcoa’s decision to close its remaining two potlines at the east plant earlier than originally planned,” he said. “My hope is that the company takes advantage of state and federal programs to help its affected workers transition to new jobs within or outside the organization. My office stands ready to assist anyone who is left without adequate employment as a result of this decision.”

Ms. Ritchie compared Wednesday’s announcement to previous announcements of threatened prison closures and the threatened closure of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

“Once again, we are being called upon as a community to stand up for our local jobs. Once again, I plan to continue to work closely with all interested parties to do what we can to convince Alcoa to maintain these jobs in this region,” she said. “We all want this company to succeed. We all want to see it grow and remain in the north country far into the future.”

When news broke of the plant’s closure sometime during the year’s first quarter, people from around the region, many of them with friends and family working at Alcoa, took to social media to respond to the announcement.

“I grew up worrying about this, as my father worked there and still does,” said Melanie A. Smith. “My heart goes out to all the families affected.”

Shelyn Peets, who is married to an employee at the plant ,compared the situation to what the community went through leading up to the closure of Massena’s GM plant.

“My husband has been a supervisor there for 15 years. We have no answers for the future, but we have four children to provide for. I lived through the buyout at GM when my father worked there and now I can empathize with what my parents dealt with and I understand the fear my children are facing. What the community needs now is prayer and faith. We need to come together and support each other and our community,” she said.

Another poster, Brandon Dufresne, said that while Wednesday’s announcement may be scary, it could have been worse.

“From what I heard they are still moving forward with the new plant, and Alcoa still has to honor their contract with NYPA to keep 900+ jobs in the meantime. Hopefully some decent retirement options will be offered at the West Plant, and they keep a bunch at the East Plant to dismantle everything to minimize layoffs until the new plant is built, but that’s assuming things don’t get worse. Anything could change in an instant,” he said.

Not everyone though was upset by the news.

Kakarakeron Turtleclan noted the plant’s closure may actually be a good thing - for the environment.

“It might be a good thing for the environment! I wish all plants were closed down,” he said. “Its hard because people are out of work! I don’t work there I just suffer from years and years of pollution these plants have caused.”

While those comments received several angry responses, Mr. Turtleclan wasn’t on his own.

“My father worked for Alcoa and got seriously sick due to the hazard waste that he was removing,” said Chris Brown. “His lungs and system were full of PCBs and other stuff. He died Jan. 23,2009 at age 53 and he worked his —- off for 30 years.”

Other found themselves at a lack for words.

Dale Rush, who according to his Facebook page works at the plant, simply said, “What am I going to do... just blank.”

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