It’s too early to know if tariffs imposed on aluminum imports announced last week by President Trump could stir interest in restarting Alcoa Wenatchee Works, mothballed since January 2016.
“But there’s hope this could start the conversation,” said Kelley Woodard, president of the Wenatchee Aluminum Trades Council, an umbrella group representing 350 workers in five unions. “We’ve got our fingers crossed.”
Just over 2 years ago, Alcoa curtailed operations at its 66-year-old Wenatchee smelter when aluminum prices declined on the global market. That cost nearly 430 workers their jobs. At the time, economists noted that Alcoa’s high wages – some annual salaries topping $100,000 – poured over $60 million annually into the Wenatchee Valley economy.
Trump’s proclamation Monday to impose tariffs of 10 percent on imported aluminum – except for shipments from trade allies Canada and Mexico – garnered praise from Alcoa’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.
“Alcoa welcomes the Administration’s decision to exempt Canada and Mexico from tariffs on aluminum imports, and calls for additional exemptions for the remaining fair trading partners,” said an Alcoa press release. “We encourage the Administration to work with allies to address the critical issue of Chinese overcapacity.”
The Alcoa Inalco aluminum smelter near Ferndale was also on the brink of closure in 2015 and 2016 because of low aluminum prices, but has made a significant comeback in the past year. Last year the Ferndale facility hired 263 people., increasing its headcount to 697. Aluminum prices have bounced back in a big way: When Alcoa first announced it was planning to idle the Intalco smelter in November 2015, aluminum prices were around $1,400 a metric ton. Just before Christmas 2017, the price was hovering near $2,150 a metric ton, according to the London Metal Exchange. Aluminum prices are currently around $2,100 a metric ton.
The president also imposed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel. The tariffs on both aluminum and steel are set to take effect in 15 days.
The Chelan County PUD has issued no official statement on the tariffs or hope of an Alcoa restart in Wenatchee. Last year, the PUD deferred for one year a $67 million power contract charge that was due in June. If the plant does not restart by this coming June, the company will be required to pay the charge.
Woodard said current prices for aluminum are $900 higher per ton than when the Wenatchee smelter went dark. The higher prices and new tariffs are “part of a lot of good stuff” recently affecting the aluminum market, he said.
“Basically, we’ve been under attack from China (metals imports) for years,” said Woodard. “Maybe, just maybe, these tariffs will help level the playing field.”