Associated Press

COLUMBIA FALLS (AP) – An aluminum plant idled more than a year ago announced Tuesday plans to reactivate 20 percent of its production capacity in mid-March, recalling about 100 workers.

“Things have turned around,” said Haley Beaudry, spokesman for Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. He said the decision was prompted by lower power prices and higher metal prices.

“We’ve been watching the markets for a while and decided this was a good time to make the move,” Beaudry said.

Glencore International, which acquired the plant in 1999, plans to buy enough power on the open market to bring one of five potlines back on line. The company also has an option to buy about 68 megawatts from the Bonneville Power Administration this fall, but whether that would allow a second potline to resume production was unclear.

“We’re still looking for opportunities to buy power at reasonable prices,” Beaudry said.

Aluminum prices have edged up in recent weeks, while open market power prices have dropped below $20 per megawatt hour, compared with $100 or more during much of last year.

The high prices in 2001 forced primary aluminum smelters in the Pacific Northwest to shut down. Together, the plants accounted for about 25 percent of U.S. production.

CFAC is the first of the plants to resume operation, Beaudry said.

Meanwhile, Kaiser Aluminum Corp. announced Tuesday in Houston that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company operates smelters in Mead and Tacoma, Wash.

The entire restart will take about 20 days, Beaudry said. A potline consists of 120 individual pots, and each must be powered up in turn, so it could be months before the line again produces aluminum efficiently.

The restart won’t have any effect on employment. The Bonneville contract guarantees that CFAC’s 305 employees will be paid through the end of next year, regardless of whether the plant produces aluminum.

Lyle Phillips, CFAC’s human resources manager, said all shift workers will return to their regular shifts as of Feb. 25.

The main benefit of the restart, he said, “is the hope it creates that this place won’t stay down forever. It’s a return to normal.”

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., applauded the announcement and said he was told that initially more than 100 jobs would be restored.

“I’m pleased to see that they have been able to find some affordable energy sources and I will do what I can to help further the process from the federal end,” Burns said.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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