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High hopes in Ravenswood

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A health-care agreement between Century Aluminum and retirees "paves the way" to reopen the Ravenswood plant that closed three years ago and laid off more than 650 workers, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Wednesday evening.

After months of public protests and prolonged negotiations, Century Aluminum agreed to restore health benefits to its retirees. Those benefits were promised under contracts that Century had signed with the United Steelworkers of America.

After reaching a deal with the retirees on Wednesday, Century is planning to reopen its plant on the Ohio River in the near future, probably hiring about 450 workers initially.

When Century shut down its Ravenswood operations on Feb. 15, 2009, the company laid off 651 workers.

Rockefeller called the deal "fantastic news" in a statement released Wednesday evening.

"This is fantastic news -- for the company, for its retirees, and for the Ravenswood community. We all had a shared goal -- reopening the Ravenswood plant and doing so in a way that provided health care to Century retirees," Rockefeller said.

"Today, that goal is one-step closer to being realized because the company and the retirees found common ground for the future of West Virginia."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin repeatedly said that if Century hoped to get any special economic benefits from state government to help reopen the plant, the company would have to restore health benefits to its retired workers.

Rockefeller said, "From the beginning, I've said that we'd leave no stone unturned in trying to reopen the plant and make sure that the active workers and retirees are given a fair shake.

"Throughout the negotiations, I have continued to work with all parties so that we could make this happen."

Karen Gorrell helped organize retiree protests and legislative lobbying efforts to restore health coverage benefits. Her husband, Michael, now 64, worked at the Ravenswood smelting plant for 33 years.

Century promised lifelong health benefits in contracts signed with the USWA, Gorrell said.

Along with other retirees and their relatives, Gorrell began holding what they called an "Occupy" encampment outside Century Aluminum's gates in Ravenswood, beginning on Dec. 19.

Gorrell, who could not be reached for comment, and other Century retirees and spouses traveled to both Charleston and Pittsburgh last week to negotiate with company and government officials.

Rockefeller said, "The union, retirees, and especially Karen Gorrell have been tireless in their efforts. Every retiree across this country deserves someone as passionate and fearless as Karen on their side.

"I also appreciate that the company, under the leadership of Mike Bless, has stepped up to make this deal happen," Rockefeller said.

In February 2009, when it shut its Ravenswood plant down, Century promised to continue providing health benefits to "early retirees" -- workers who retired between the ages of 55 and 65 -- as well as to workers who were already retired, as required under its United Steelworkers contract.

But on Jan. 1, 2011, Century cut off all health coverage for early retirees. Century agreed to pay COBRA premiums to let those retirees keep health insurance for six months. That health coverage ended last July. (COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.)

The other aluminum plant, adjacent to Century's plant, is today operated by Alcan Rolled Products.

Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. first opened the aluminum smelting and rolling complex back in 1958. Kaiser operated it until 1989, when they sold it to Ravenswood Aluminum, which later sold the facilities to their two current owners.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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