The announcement of the closure of the last aluminum potlines at Alcoas East plant ends smelting at a factory opened in 1959 as part of the complicated and intricate government-inspired agreement to build the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Moses Saunders power dam, provide Alcoa with cheap electricity and attract Reynolds Metals to Massena to supply a new General Motors foundry using freshly smelted aluminum to cast engine blocks.
Now in 2014, only the original Alcoa facilities, the seaway and the power dam remain.
The relentless power of the St. Lawrence River was the heart of the culmination of decades of hope, planning and political machinations from Washington to Ottawa to Albany. Building a hydropower-generating facility across the international border created an enormous supply of electricity for Canada and Northern New York.
In return for the changes to the natural flow of the river, New York state guaranteed that Alcoa and its job-intensive operation would have an uninterrupted supply of inexpensive electricity to smelt aluminum. Alcoa was guaranteed a workable business model, and the north country was promised high-quality jobs.
The Moses Saunders dam was integral and essential to connecting the upper Great Lakes to the Atlantic ocean with the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The total project required congressional action, Canadian participation and New York state. New York and Ontario built the power dam, and the federal government built the seaway.
New York also insisted that St. Lawrence County benefit well beyond repowering Alcoa, which had dominated Massena for more than 50 years. Driven by the determination of Gov. W. Averell Harriman Reynolds, General Motors located in Massena.
Now 55 years later, Reynolds is gone, having been absorbed by Alcoa, and its potlines are about to close. General Motors is gone, and the federal government is still cleaning up environmental damage at the former foundry site.
Alcoa has contracted for 40 more years of power from the Power Authority and promised to invest $600 million in the East plant to modernize it.
The unexpected closure of the East plant threatens 332 employees. This is about a third of the total number of men and women whose livelihoods depend upon Alcoa and the cheap power generated by the St. Lawrence River.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been adamant that Alcoa honor its agreement to maintain 900 jobs in Massena in return for 40 years of the inexpensive power required to make aluminum.
The closure of the potlines comes at a time when the aluminum industry is beset with an oversupply of the basic lightweight metal. Worldwide government subsidized smelters are flooding the market with billions of pounds of unsold aluminum, driving down the price.
In fact, the price of aluminum has declined 30 percent since the East plant lines reopened two years ago. Alcoa is losing large sums of money maintaining production on the two antiquated lines, losses that cannot be sustained.
New York and its Power Authority must focus on the future. Any loss of jobs is tragic, and the effort to prevent involuntary layoffs by offering early retirement incentives and buyouts is essential.
However, most important are the remaining 700-plus jobs in Massena at the West plant, which struggles in the same worldwide market to sell its output.
The West plant, too, depends on the electricity from Moses Saunders and the attractive rate guaranteed for 40 years. The Power Authority and the state must use its leverage and creativity to ensure that the $600 million investment in the East plant occurs. Alcoa needs a North American smelting location, and there is no better price for electricity in the United States.
That electricity supply should be utilized to guarantee that Massenas West plant remains a major smelter in the Alcoa portfolio and the agreed upon long-term investment is made. It is incumbent on the Power Authority and Alcoa to create an environment that will result in success for Alcoa, the workers and Massena.
Only then can Massena and St. Lawrence County feel confident that their long history of supplying American industry with high-quality, lightweight metal will continue for another half century.