Zinc prices tumbled from $1 per pound to less than 50 cents over the past six months. The fallout has repercussions for Northeast Washington, where 165 employees at the Pend Oreille Mine will lose their jobs in mid-February.
The underground mine produced about 60,000 tons of zinc concentrate last year. Both the automobile and construction industries consume large amounts of zinc, which is used to rust-proof steel.
“Zinc prices are directly tied to economic activity. We’ve seen economic activity drop off over the past year, and prices have followed,” said David Godlewski, Teck American’s vice president of environmental and public affairs in Spokane.
Teck American is a subsidiary of Teck Cominco Ltd., the Vancouver, B.C., firm that owns the Pend Oreille Mine.
More than 200 people work at the mine, one of the largest private employers in Pend Oreille County. A small maintenance staff will remain through the closure.
Godlewski said the mine will reopen when market conditions improve.
Concentrate from the Pend Oreille Mine is shipped to Teck Cominco’s smelter in Trail, B.C., where zinc production was cut by 20 percent last month. The smelter will still produce enough zinc to meet customer demands, company officials said.
Reduced output at the smelter is expected to last for at least six months. During that time, Teck Cominco will sell unused electricity from its Waneta Dam south of Trail to improve the smelter’s bottom line.
Teck Cominco is a large producer of base metals. In late November, company officials announced plans to slash stock dividends, sell assets and reduce spending to cut costs by more than $1 billion next year. The savings will help Teck Cominco pay down its debt.
President-elect Barack Obama’s plans for an economic stimulus package could help zinc prices rebound, Godlewski said.
“We’re encouraged that there’s a lot of discussion about infrastructure,” he said.
Rebuilding bridges and freeways would lead to demand for steel products – such as beams and rebar – which are coated with zinc, Godlewski said.
Zinc is also used in pharmaceuticals and fertilizers, in die casts and as part of the alloy that produces brass.