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Alcoa To Restart Smelter Line

Alcoa's third smelter line in Wenatchee, Wash., cold for more than a decade, should fire up Tuesday after round-the-clock prep work.

WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) -- Alcoa's third smelter line, cold for more than a decade, should fire up Tuesday after round-the-clock prep work.

"We're close to pushing the button," plant manager Nik Winjum said Friday, poising a finger over an imaginary switch. "We're awfully darned close."

Alcoa hired and trained 80 new employees in recent months for the $1.5 million push to retool and restart the mothballed Wenatchee Works' line. Beginning Sunday, the successful testing of power equipment and a final tweaking of the massive aluminum-making machinery should give the potline its long-awaited green light.

"It's a lot of hard work, but we're loving every minute of it," said employee Kelly Reynolds, 51, of East Wenatchee. Until seven months ago, he sold groceries and cars before being hired by Alcoa to join a 25-person crew to rebuild pots on the third line. "We're excited to get this thing up and running."

Local officials for Alcoa, the world's largest aluminum company, announced Jan. 7 that the Wenatchee smelter would be one of three in the U.S. to restart idle production lines this year as worldwide demand for aluminum increases, particularly for the aerospace industries and food and beverage products.

At the 445-employee Wenatchee Works, a third potline running full bore would increase the plant's number of smelter pots to 462 from 306 and boost annual production to 148,000 metric tons from 100,000. At its peak in the 1960s, the plant produced 210,000 metric tons annually.

Powering up the line to full capacity could take up to three weeks, Winjum said. Pots on the line will be energized in sets of 12 until all are up and running.

The company has pushed to ensure the potline is operational by March and April's "spring flush" on the Columbia River. That's when massive amounts of snow runoff move down the river to produce a surge in power at the region's hydroelectric dams.

The potline's March start is well ahead of the Nov. 1 activation date of a new 17-year contract with the Chelan County PUD for cheap power to operate the line. That contract includes a $20 million upgrade to the facility's substation to meet increased power and efficiency demands.

Alcoa's Wenatchee Works opened in 1952. The third potline shut down during the energy crisis of 2001 and has been sitting there -- cold and waiting -- ever since, Winjum said. Alcoa facilities in Ferndale and Messina, N.Y. -- also idle for years -- are scheduled to crank up this year.

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