W.Va. gov OKs tax aid to reopen aluminum plant

LAWRENCE MESSINA Associated Press Published:

RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. (AP) -- Hoping to restore hundreds of manufacturing jobs, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed tax legislation Monday meant to help Century Aluminum reopen its Jackson County plant.

But several hurdles await as the California-based metal producer considers restarting the Ravenswood smelter that it idled in 2009, throwing more than 650 people out of work.

Tomblin noted that when he marked the special session measure's approval, during a brief ceremony in a cavernous warehouse at the sprawling facility along the Ohio River.

"It's taken, basically, everyone in this room, and many others, to get us where we are today," Tomblin said. He added, "We all know how important this plant is to the community of Ravenswood and the people of Jackson County."

The measure aims to aid Century as it negotiates a long-term electricity contract with Appalachian Power. It will provide up to $20 million in tax credits annually for 10 years, to help the utility provide power to the Ravenswood plant at special rates when aluminum prices are weak.

Company officials hope to land rate breaks totaling $50 million to $60 million during the first and possibly second year the plant restarts. The state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, must review and approve any special contract reached for the Century plant.

The company also must reach a new agreement with the United Steelworkers union. With a planning meeting for future talks set for Tuesday, both sides expressed optimism regarding that hurdle.

"Comparing it to a football game, we're at half time," Randy Moore, a District 8 union official. "This is a great day. It's been a good first half. We're looking forward to a good second half."

Several dozen Century retirees also attended Monday's ceremony. Most had worked for several decades at the plant and for some, their fathers helped build it in the 1950s.

"A lot of the people in this area have had to leave since this plant closed," Mack McDaniel, 66, a 34-year veteran of the plant. "This will give them a chance to come home, maybe... Hopefully, getting the plant to run again will help (Century's) bottom line, too."

Tomblin proposed the tax measure, and the Legislature passed it during a March special session. That came only after retirees accepted an agreement that should partly restore health benefits that Century began eliminating in 2010.

The retirees and their families lobbied lawmakers, spoke out at Century stockholder meetings and held prayer vigils and protests, among other actions, to fight for the return of those benefits. Tomblin singled out Karen Gorrell, the wife of one retiree, during Monday's event for helping to lead the campaign to regain the health coverage.

Delegate Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was among the lawmakers who championed the retirees' cause and urged support of the special session legislation.

"It's just such a great thing to see, how many families will be positively impacted by these jobs," said Carmichael, whose father worked at the plant. "It just warms your heart."