CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- United Steelworkers representatives on Monday declared the union's "wholehearted support" of a special power rate for New Haven-based Felman Production during the first day of Public Service Commission hearings on the plan.
Felman, one of two plants in the United States that produces silicomanganese, an additive used to make steel, halted production at its Mason County plant earlier this year due to depressed market conditions.
The company is now asking for a special power rate that officials say will help ease its costs and allow the plant to reopen. However, that plan would require Appalachian Power to pass on some costs to other ratepayers when prices in the silicomanganese market are low.
The Public Service Commission began two days of hearings on the matter Monday morning.
During the public comments section at the beginning of Monday's hearing, two union representatives took the stand to ask commissioners to approve the plan.
Roy Martin, a Felman employee and vice president of USWA Local 5171, spoke on behalf of local members and said Felman was an asset to New Haven, Mason County and the surrounding area.
He said 155 union members have been laid off since Felman curtailed production; he is one of 46 workers left conducting maintenance and repair operations at the plant.
"It depresses me every day I walk into my plant not seeing my family, friends and neighbors there working at the plant," Martin said.
"Felman, its employees and its families are asking for a break," he told the commission.
Randy Moore, sub-district director for the union, said labor officials have not always had a good working relationship with owners of the 61-year-old plant.
The plant was built in 1952 by the Foote Mineral Co. and has had a tumultuous history. The plant closed and reopened numerous times as some owners declared bankruptcy and sold the plant to new owners.
The plant's most recent closure was under bankrupt Highlanders Alloys in late 2005. Felman bought the facility from Highlanders for $20 million in early 2006.
Moore said the previous owners were disingenuous and left the plant in ruin. However, he said Felman executives have negotiated in good faith and invested tens of millions of dollars to improve the plant.
"When you walk by that facility now it is a working facility, not the shambled caving in hull of a facility it once was," Moore said.
Moore said Felman could have decided to furlough the entire work force when the market turned this year. Instead, he said company officials tried to keep as many workers employed as possible by shifting staff to maintenance and repair operations.
Moore said he believes the company's claims that it will begin recalling workers if the commission approves the plan.
"The Steelworkers stand in wholehearted support (of the plan)," Moore said.
"We believe in Felman," he said. "Felman has been a good corporate partner with us. They have come through on everything they have ever said they would do."
Mason County Commission President Rick Handley also testified on behalf of the company Monday, saying the plant was a vital economic engine.
He said Felman pays nearly $800,000 in annual taxes to the county each year, $200,000 of which goes directly to the county commission's budget, with most of the rest going to the local school system.
The Felman proposal would allow the company to take up to $9.5 million in discounts on its power bill each year, depending on where prices for silicomanganese and other raw materials are during a given year.
The potential discounts would come from the $9.5 million the company pays each year to cover Appalachian Power's fixed costs.
Appalachian Power would pay for this by charging other ratepayers slightly more. Felman estimated the average residential customer's bill would go up by about 55 cents a month if the full $9.5 million discount is taken.
Because these fixed costs would be passed on to other customers anyway, Felman officials have argued the special rate plan would leave ratepayers no worse off than they would be if the plant were to shut down permanently.
Other groups, including Appalachian Power, manufacturing representatives and the Consumer Advocate Division, disagree. They argue other ratepayers should not be forced to subsidize business risks for corporate investors.
Testimony in the case will resume at 8 a.m. today and can be viewed online at the commission's website, <f"SansBlackCondensed">www.psc.state.wv.us<f"DMCrown">.
@tagline:Contact writer Jared Hunt at busin...@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4836.