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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Proving Their Mettle

When the Evansville Chrysler auto plant relocated its operation to St. Louis and took thousands of jobs with it, the Tri-State needed a large-scale company to replenish jobs. Two years later, Alcoa, a company that even then had established itself as one of the world’s aluminum smelting leaders, finished construction on Newburgh’s Alcoa Warrick Operations, a 375,000-kilowatt power plant and 150,000 metric ton-a-year smelter. The plant poured its first metal on June 9, 1960, and this year, Alcoa — now with a 791-megawatt power plant fueled by Alcoa’s coal reserves and an Illinois coal mine — celebrates its 50th year in the region: a milestone demonstrating a significant economic, philanthropic, and environmental impact.

Today, with a corporate center in Pittsburgh and its corporate headquarters in New York City, Alcoa has around 60,000 employees in more than 30 countries, and Alcoa Warrick Operations employs 1,911 people. It houses 120 acres of its 14,000 under one roof and boasts the largest operating aluminum smelting facility in the country.

Soon after its opening 50 years ago, the facility branched out into casting, rolling, and fabricating. The casting process transforms molten metal into 30-foot-long ingots weighing as much as 40,000 pounds. After the casting process, ingots move through a reversing mill, a continuous mill, and one of two cold mills to convert a 20-inch-thick ingot into a coil of aluminum sheet that can be 13 miles long and as thin as 10 pieces of paper. In the finishing department, workers clean, level, lubricate, coat, and trim the metal.

That metal, aluminum, heads around the world to kitchen cupboards. Since opening, Warrick Operations has been Alcoa’s prime location for can stock rolling mills, churning out aluminum sheet for food and beverage cans across the globe. Another major achievement, says Jim Beck, communications and public affairs leader at Warrick Operations, is the production of metal for lithographic printing plates used on printing presses.

A study on the current economic impact of the plant, conducted by economics professors Gale Blalock of the University of Evansville and Perry Burnett of the University of Southern Indiana, shows that Warrick Operations, and the metropolitan activity due to its existence, currently contributes more than $657 million of output to the country’s gross domestic product — almost $1.8 million every day. The ongoing study, which began earlier this year, found that the plant’s 1,911 jobs currently support an additional 4,003 Tri-State jobs, and that one out of every $20 of personal income generated annually in the Evansville metropolitan area (including Indiana’s Warrick, Vanderburgh, Gibson, and Posey counties and Kentucky’s Henderson and Webster counties) stems from the economic activity associated with the existence of Warrick Operations.

Beck says the company’s ability to endure five decades comes from being a completely integrated facility. “From generating our own power to casting raw molten metal into ingots to rolling and fabricating the finished products, this gives us a tremendous advantage in what really is a global marketplace right now,” he says.[pagebreak]

The Warrick facility is powered by the four steam-powered turbines of the Alcoa Warrick Power Plant, a local division of Alcoa Power Generating, Inc. (APGI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Alcoa, Inc. (APGI owns three generators; APGI and Vectren, a utility company, jointly own the fourth and largest generator.) Beck adds that the company’s diversity in product offerings has been a key factor in the growing challenge to stay competitive with rival markets. “Beverage and food cans have been this facility’s bread and butter over the years, and we’re also becoming very respected as the only supplier of high-quality lithographic sheet in North America,” he notes.

Manufacturing flat-rolled aluminum sheet for a variety of end products may have led to Warrick Operations’ success, but the company’s philanthropy helps make it a part of the community. Alcoa gives around $400,000 annually to local organizations, chiefly through the Alcoa Foundation, which works alongside Alcoa to provide grants, scholarships, and support for various projects and partnerships. Every October, Alcoa employees across the globe participate in a month of philanthropic service. Last October, Warrick Operations assisted the community in 18 projects such as clearing nature trails and teaching students in the Warrick County school system about the basics of aluminum recycling.

While giving back has been a part of Alcoa’s role, critics often note Alcoa’s environmental impact. Globally, complaints raised against Alcoa include the company’s presence in Iceland, a place with air quality so pure that The New York Times reported the Kyoto Protocol, an international effort to curb climate change, granted the island country the right to increase its greenhouse emissions by 10 percent from levels in the 1990s. In response, Iceland’s government welcomed international investment by power-intensive industries such as aluminum. Despite protests about the impact on Iceland’s fragile ecosystem, Alcoa opened an aluminum smelter on the island in summer 2007.

Indiana is roughly the size of Iceland, and in Evansville, air quality warnings began in April this year. Alcoa took measures to reduce those warnings long ago, says Beck. Between 2005 and 2008, Warrick Operations installed wet flue gas desulphurization technology (known as “scrubbers”) on each of the plant’s four generating units to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. The result in 2009, the plant’s first full year of scrubber use, was a 95 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide, a 99.9 percent reduction in hydrochloric acid, and a 51 percent reduction in mercury, says Beck. The project, costing more than $500 million, went beyond anything required by the rule of regulation, according to Beck, and at the time, it was Alcoa’s largest investment in North America.

“We work in an environmentally friendly business to begin with,” he says, noting that 75 percent of all the aluminum ever made still is in use today. “When a consumer brings an aluminum can to a recycling system, within 60 days on average, that can will have been recycled and will be back on the shelf as a new can.”

Beck adds that while plastic bottles have risen in popularity in recent years, lower recyclability (25 percent of plastic bottles get recycled) has helped aluminum stay competitive in an increasingly environmentally minded market. Those investments in sustainability give “a strong vote of confidence to our employees,” Beck says. “It’s one of the factors that hopefully will set Warrick Operations up for another 50 years of service.”

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