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Century plant retiree benefits at risk

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Century Aluminum retirees who struck a deal for a partial restoration of their health benefits last year now say their agreement with the company has become a "dead letter," with no possibility of becoming valid.

"We are livid," said Century retiree spokeswoman Karen Gorrell.

Century closed the plant during the height of the economic downturn in 2009, leaving more than 650 people jobless.

Compounding the trouble, Century ended health care coverage for Medicare-eligible retirees in 2010. Early retirees between the ages of 55 and 65 lost their coverage in 2011.

The company said the cuts were needed to control costs at the plant in case it were to be reactivated.

Last February, a group of retirees from the Ravenswood aluminum smelter struck a deal with company executives for a partial restoration of health benefits.

The deal was supposed to help get the green light for a restart of the shuttered plant, but that restart never occurred.

The settlement called for reinstatement of about $4 million worth of benefits per year. To contrast, Century has said the total elimination of all benefits saved the company about $18 million per quarter.

Now, Gorrell says retirees have been advised their deal with the company is on the verge of being nullified.

She said she has been told the agreement is in effect a "dead letter" because it will likely not be finalized in court before a significant deadline.  

Retirees had asked a federal court to reinstate their benefits. The agreement last year was intended to resolve that case.

"The settlement agreement was never finalized and presented to the court," Gorrell said. "If the settlement agreement were presented to the court today, the conditions like court approval which were part of the settlement could not now be completed by the July 1, 2013, expiration date of the settlement."

The agreement was contingent upon Century restarting the Ravenswood plant.

While state lawmakers passed a bill giving the company about $20 million in annual tax credits to lower the plant's power bill, the process stalled when the state Public Service Commission rejected a company plan to push off some of its power costs onto regular ratepayers.

Gorrell said the retirees stand ready to re-open negotiations with the company on the new deal. But she was not hopeful.

"We are far from confident that Century has true intentions of restarting the Jackson county plant after all the months of hard work and effort so many have afforded them," she said.

Century spokesman Mike Dildine said Thursday he could not comment on the retiree situation since the litigation was still pending in court.

But he did reiterate the company's desire to both restart the plant and work with the retirees.

"The company remains committed to both restarting the Ravenswood smelter and the agreement it reached with the retirees regarding healthcare benefits, which is conditioned upon a restart of the plant," Dildine said.

"Toward this end, we continue to be actively engaged in discussions with the energy providers to secure energy for the facility at rates that would enable an economic restart and allow the plant to remain viable," he said.

While the company's proposal to pass some power costs off onto regular ratepayers was rejected last year, the PSC did provide the company with a potential rate structure to use if it decided to restart.

Commissioners also said Century and Appalachian Power could negotiate a new rate agreement, provided it met certain conditions.

Century and Appalachian officials began negotiating rates for the Ravenswood plant early this year. Officials have said those talks are still in their preliminary phase.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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