Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. today is expected to announce a $54.5 million reconstruction of its antiquated smelter furnaces in Mead.
The project is one of the largest at the World War II-vintage aluminum factory north of Spokane, representing an investment nearly equal to building the Spokane Arena.
Kaiser’s board of directors, meeting last week at company headquarters in Houston, approved plans to modernize the smelter’s carbon bake furnaces.
About 1,200 people work at the Mead plant. It was unclear Sunday how many people work in the carbon bake department, which plays a critical role in producing aluminum.
David Kjos, vice president and works manager for the Mead plant, has scheduled a press conference today in downtown Spokane to discuss details of the improvements.
Kjos was unavailable for comment, but a source familiar with the project who asked not to be named, said construction will begin in April and be completed in late 1998.
The investment signals a long-term commitment by Kaiser to the Mead smelter, the source indicated.
Kaiser withdrew similar plans for replacing the carbon bake furnaces in 1991 after aluminum prices dropped and Inland Northwest power rates shot up. That fueled speculation that the company might withdraw from Spokane.
“This is critical to Mead’s long-term future and a wonderful business retention strategy,” the source said.
The board’s decision comes on the heels of financial rebound that netted Kaiser a $60.3 million profit in 1995, compared to a $106.8 million loss a year earlier. The 1995 earnings were dampened by an eight-day strike in February by the United Steelworkers of America, which cost the company $17 million.
Since the strike, Kaiser has signed long-term contracts for electricity and fired up two idled pot lines at Mead. All eight pot lines at the plant are now operating.
Pot-room operators depend on the carbon department to bake 2,000 carbon blocks, or anodes, each year. The blocks are installed in the pots to conduct electricity through alumina and other chemicals, reducing the elements to molten aluminum.
Most of Mead’s aluminum is shipped to Kaiser’s flat-rolled mill in Trentwood, where pure aluminum is shipped to makers of aluminum cans, aerospace and automobile parts, computer components and other manufacturers.
All four of the carbon bake furnaces will be affected by the improvement project. One furnace will be rebuilt, one will become storage for anodes and two will be replaced by a larger, more efficient furnace.
Mead is the largest of four smelters that Kaiser owns worldwide. The plant, which was constructed for the federal government in 1942, has an annual capacity of 200,000 metric tons of primary molten aluminum and aluminum shots.