A shuttered Whatcom County aluminum plant could be revived or find new life as a steel plant.
Two separate groups are considering purchasing Alcoa’s Intalco Works plant in Ferndale, Port of Bellingham officials said Tuesday during a public meeting.
The first proposal involves a company acquiring the Alcoa facility and reopening the aluminum smelter for its own operations. The second proposal involves a different company — a Canadian-American joint venture — acquiring the facility and converting it into a steel plant.
“We’re very supportive about the potential of having good, high-paying manufacturing jobs coming to the county,” said Don Goldberg, director of economic development at the Port of Bellingham, in an interview. Goldberg said the Port is not actively involved in any of the negotiations but was made aware of the discussions, given its role as an economic development agency for the region.
Port officials would not reveal the prospective buyers. But Goldberg said he believed both proposals were “very real” and he believes the companies would like to move “as soon as possible.” The decision is ultimately left to Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, the industrial metals producer that owns the facility.
“[N]o decisions regarding a potential restart or divestiture have been made,” an Alcoa spokesperson said in a statement. “We continue to evaluate all of our options …”
The second proposal involving the conversion to a steel plant would take a phased approach to reopening, said Goldberg. Phase 1 would create 100 jobs, Phase 2 would include a $1 billion investment and create up to 700 jobs, and Phase 3 would include a $3 billion investment, bringing the total job count to more than 1,000.
“From what the [the buyers] tell us, they would like to do it as soon as possible,” said Goldberg. But he pointed out that converting the smelter into a steel plant would be a significant undertaking that includes licensing, permits and construction. Restarting aluminum smelters, too, can be a long, costly process on its own.
The plant was curtailed in 2020 and 700 workers were laid off. When it was open, the Alcoa plant routinely struggled to stay economically viable given its antiquated, inefficient equipment and rising energy costs, said Ken Bell, president of the Port of Bellingham Commission. It managed to stay operational given regular renegotiations with power authorities. But plunging aluminum prices in 2020 when the pandemic began didn’t help.
Today, aluminum trades at more than $3,000 per ton, roughly double what it was when the plant was curtailed. The global supply crunch may promise to keep markets that way for a while.
Bell said one of the Port’s priorities is making sure sustainability is considered during any potential transfer of ownership.
“Any industrial site that was done in the ’50s, 60s and 70s has got environmental issues,” he said.
To that end, the joint venture proposal is aiming to build “the greenest, most modern steel mill in the world,” said Goldberg. The venture would seek to buy the scrap materials in America and use electric furnaces and sustainably produced “green” hydrogen — instead of fossil fuels — to make the steel, becoming more competitive with producers in Asia.
The Port hasn’t ruled out that it will need to be involved at some point in the process, Bell said. He pointed out that the Port of Bellingham repurposed the previous site of a Georgia Pacific pulp and paper plant into Bellingham’s central waterfront. But that required a significant environmental cleanup and took decades to accomplish.
“We want to make sure that we lend our expertise and facilitate this transaction with whoever’s coming in to make sure it happens,” he said.
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that aluminum prices fell in early 2020.