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Sen. Charles Schumer watches as Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld addresses his employees.
Sen. Charles Schumer watches as Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld addresses his employees.

Massena celebrates Alcoa restart

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The leader of one of the world's largest aluminum producers came to Massena Friday with good news. 115 workers are back on the job after a year-and-a-half shutdown of Alcoa East's three pot lines. Senator Chuck Schumer joined Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld for a hero's welcome. As David Sommerstein reports, the visit brought hope about Alcoa's long-term future in the North Country.

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David Sommerstein
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Massena’s been a company town for more than a century.  Friday, that company’s CEO worked his way through cheering employees in orange and yellow hard hats.


Amidst handshakes, high fives and backslaps, the cheers got louder.  Then Alcoa’s Klauss Kleinfeld hit the podium, and plant manager John Martin made it official.

Alright!  Welcome to the newly energized Massena East plant.  [cheers.]

Kleinfeld invoked Charles Martin Hall, the man who invented a cheap way to make aluminum and brought his process to Massena in 1902.

And he never regretted it.  At that time it wasn’t called Alcoa, it was called Pittsburgh Reduction Company.  And they came here because of what, the energy.

The renewable hydroelectric power from the Grasse and later the St. Lawrence Rivers.  Kleinfeld said it was the New York Power Authority’s guarantee of millions of dollars in cheap power that made this day possible.

If we hadn’t been able to sign the long-term power contract, it would not have assured the future of the plant.

It’s been a brutal two years in Massena.  General Motors closed.  This plant shut its smelters down.  The recession hit hard.  With hundreds of people out of work, the town had to return a prestigious grant for a community center because it couldn’t raise the local share of funding.  Tim Hewlett was one of those laid off.

Yeah, it was tight.  I have a family and the insurance here is really good, so I’m just happy to be back here.

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer called those “dark days”.  But he said now the worst is over.

I remember a jingle as I watched TV when I was a kid.  ‘Alcoa can’t wait for tomorrow.’  For the hundred workers back on the job, tomorrow is today!  [cheers]  It’s here, and we can’t wait for more tomorrows and more workers coming to this plant.

That last part refers to a lingering fear amidst the joy.  In exchange for that 30 year low cost power contract, Alcoa has to promise to keep at least 900 workers here – there are 1094 today.  The company also has to invest 600 million dollars to modernize the plant and build an additional potline, what workers refer to as Line 7.

But Alcoa’s board has yet to sign off on the agreement.  It has until 2013 to do so.

CEO Kleinfeld says things look “reasonably positive”.  Aluminum demand is rising on the need for light metal in everything from iPads to fuel-efficient cars.

Aluminum is a very very cool metal.  We call it the miracle metal, for automotive, light weight, as well as recyclability.  When you throw a can away it comes back as a new can 60 days later.  All of this is great stuff that will be more needed in the future.

Kleinfeld’s visit brought hope to employees, but also a sort fight-for-your-life challenge.

To have a CEO come to the North Country, it’s probably a once in a lifetime thing and he probably won’t come again.

Leo Sochia of Massena’s worked at Alcoa for 24 years.  He sees this moment as a test.  Alcoa’s board will watch carefully before approving the modernization plan.

And this is all part of it.  This restart, back to profitability, making money, and one thing leads to another, and hopefully this is a stepping stone to get a Line 7, new modernization program.

Senator Schumer made it clear he would pull out all the stops to keep Alcoa happy.  He said he’d be a “watchdog” over potential obstacles and even mentioned the EPA and its environmental regulations by name.

Following the speeches, a lift poured molten aluminum into a ceremonial mold.  Senator Schumer and Alcoa’s CEO stood side by side and clapped, hopeful partners as Alcoa prepares to make its final decision on Massena’s future.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Massena.

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