Rally’s goal: Keep Ormet open

HANNIBAL – Martins Ferry resident Rich Spielvogel doesn’t know if Saturday’s rally will sway the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s decision to grant Ormet emergency relief, but ”it can’t hurt.”

Spielvogel, who has worked at Ormet Aluminum Corp. for 13 years, said he has no idea what he would do if the plant shut down.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” he said.

Spielvogel was accompanied by his wife, Melissa, and their daughters Kelsey, 15, and Richella, 11. The girls made colorful posters in support of the company, “Save Ormet,” and their father, “Save My Dad’s Job.” The family was among about 300 workers, retirees, supporters, politicians and media in attendance at the rally held at Ormet’s recreation area beside the Hannibal plant.

In years past, Ormet and its unionized workers have clashed over contracts and other issues. But the rally brought them together for a common cause – to keep the plant open.

Along with about 900 workers and company officials, nearly everyone who is impacted directly or indirectly by the operation is concerned about its possible closure.

Ormet says if it does not receive relief from its electricity price from American Electric Power, it will be forced to close. It has made its plea with PUCO, which has yet to make a decision about whether Ormet’s situation is an ”emergency.” PUCO’s next meeting is slated for Aug. 27. AEP could raise Ormet’s bill to $62.83 per megawatt hour. In its 2009 power agreement, the cost was $39.66 per megawatt hour, which Dave McCall, United Steelworkers District 1 director, said is about the current market price.

“All we’re asking is to buy power off the grid at market rates,” McCall said. “We want to be able to compete with everybody else.”

Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said the emergency rate relief would allow the company to emerge from bankruptcy.

“I spent a lot of time talking to the families. This is not just about numbers on a spreadsheet, this is about people’s lives,” Gentile said. “You will not go at this alone. … Your jobs, your families are worth saving.”

Ormet retiree P.V. Neely said he came to the rally to “support the guys.”

“Hopefully they will get the plant back in operation,” Neely said, referring to Ormet now running two of its six potlines.

The reduction of potlines resulted in 200 jobs being cut. Ormet says it will layoff all of its workers pending a sale to Wayzata Investment Partners that is contingent upon Ormet receiving electricity discounts.

Neely added he didn’t know if the rally would help sway PUCO’s decision.

“I think it’s too late. It was my life for 39 years. (Closing) will have a big impact,” he said.

Ron Jackson, who has worked at Ormet for 33 years, said closing the plant would hurt more than just its workers – it would hurt the local Switzerland of Ohio School District and small businesses.

“Each job is a family,” Jackson said. “We need AEP to think about families instead of profits. Their profit margins are ridiculous.”

Jackson believes since Ormet is AEP’s biggest customer, if the plant shuts down the utility company would raise its rates on residential customers to make up the difference.

Frank Chappell, who retired from Ormet in 1996, said he came to the rally to learn more about what would happen to his pension. McCall said retirees’ pensions would be protected by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Tom Byers, USW Local 5724 president, said Ormet is the third largest aluminum smelter in the country and the plant has a $238 million economic impact.

“In a four-year period, AEP’s rate has increased 46 percent … As a result of this increase, Ormet can no longer continue to operate profitably. If the current power agreement is not changed by the PUCO, Ormet will shut down,” Byers said. “A temporary reduced power rate would allow Ormet to construct a 550 megawatt gas-fired power plant providing on-site power generation.”

Donnie Blatt, USW District 1 Rapid Response coordinator, called for the workers and community to unite to fight PUCO and AEP. He said people need to call AEP and voice their support for Ormet. He also expressed disappointment in Gov. John Kasich for not helping.

“I guess we’re in for another fight. … We need to show AEP that we’re never going to quit until we get a fair rate. Let’s keep up the fight and save Ormet,” Blatt said.

Blatt noted he was disappointed more workers who were able to did not show up for the rally.

“Shame on you for not being here – this is all of our fight,” he said. “We can’t expect anyone else to help us if we don’t help ourselves.”

Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, said he was done being nice about the situation.

“There’s a time to be nice and there’s a time to fight for what you believe in,” Cera said.

Lance Erlwein, Switzerland of Ohio School District treasurer, said Ormet’s closure would mean a direct loss of $110,000 in property tax revenue given to the school.

That’s equal to two teachers’ salaries, he said. Losing more teachers would mean crowded classrooms.

“Ormet’s situation is similar to what we’re facing. … This is going to set back the community 50 years or maybe even 100 years,” Erlwein said. “As Ormet goes, so goes the community.”

He noted despite cuts it has made, the district still needs to pass a school levy in November.

Several statements in support of Ormet were read by people representing: Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta; and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.