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Alcoa breaks ground at Massena East plant

Julie Grant/NCPR

Alcoa Aluminum broke ground earlier this week on a $600 million expansion and modernization project at its manufacturing plant in Massena.

Company officials were joined by New York Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, other state and local leaders, North Country Rep. Bill Owens, and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

Schumer says he started working to maintain the Alcoa plant in Massena in 2007.

"After years of delay and uncertainty, all that's left now is to get some shovels in the ground, some champagne corks in the air, several new paychecks signed, sealed and delivered, and an assurance to existing employees that your jobs are safe for decades to come. What great news."

Workers in orange hard hats looked on, as Schumer and the other leaders picked up aluminum shovels, and hoisted the first mounds of dirt to start the Alcoa East plant project.

The project is expected to protect 900 jobs at the Massena facility.

Schumer says he had to work with two different leaders at Alcoa, and three different New York governors to get this expansion deal.

The first step was to provide Alcoa with low-cost power through the New York Power Authority.

"But we signed that contract. And it meant that the power here was cheaper, actually cheaper, than in all the other places that Alcoa was working in America, and probably cheaper than the places Alcoa was working overseas."

As part of the power contract, Alcoa was required to pay $10 million to the North Country Economic Development Fund to support workforce training. The check was presented Monday.

But Schumer says Alcoa still wouldn't move forward on the Massena expansion until it had a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency over cleanup of the Grasse River. In the 1970s, Alcoa dumped PCBs in the River. Some clean-up proposals would have cost up to $1 billion dollars. Schumer Alcoa told him "if we have to spend a billion dollars cleaning up the Grasse River, we're all for cleaning it up, we're not going to have enough money to expand the Massena East facility here.'"

In April, Alcoa and the EPA settled on a much less expensive $245 million cleanup plan.

"And that made sense, it's an economic issue. They don't have unlimited dollars. And the aluminum market, as we all know, goes up and down and up and down."

The international aluminum market is currently struggling with oversupply, and prices are down. Just last week, Alcoa announced it would close a smelting facility in Italy because of low prices.

Massena Town Supervisor Joe Grey says the North Country has given the company a good deal, and is part of its success. But everyone can do a little bit more to help: "Make sure you use all the aluminum foil and all the aluminum cans you can on the 4th of July, we want the price of aluminum to go up, there's a little bit of a glut, so the more we use, the better off we'll all be."