Consider this: The Columbia River flows through Alcoa's Wenatchee Works in more ways than one.
In North Central Washington, the river's hydropower feeds the Malaga facility's hunger for cheap electricity to transform its primary raw material — aluminum oxide or "alumina" — into the aluminum ingots used to make the world's beer cans and jet planes.
Two hundred miles downriver in Longview, Alcoa counts on the Columbia as a major shipping channel for that same basic ingredient. Alumina — much of it from Australia — arrives in big ships (see photo) stuffed to the poop decks with the crystalline ore in powder form. The vessels dock at a shipping terminal custom-fitted with specialized machinery that off-loads the precious cargo into silos and onto trains.
Over the years, that dock in Longview has suffered some serious wear and tear, and — even worse — the shipping channel is filling up with silt (a common downriver problem).
Now, Alcoa and its dock partner, Millennium Bulk Terminals, are about to spend $1 million to spruce up the docking facility and dredge the channel to accommodate big honkin' ships with 40-foot drafts. Last week, they applied for a federal permit to do just that.
"This is all far downriver, but it's critical to keeping the flow of alumina coming into the Malaga plant," said Alcoa spokeswoman Sharon Kanareff. "The dock is outfitted specifically to unload alumina and get it onto trains — one of the few shipping terminals on the West Coast that can do that."
Improvements will include rebuilding a few of the dock's structural underpinnings, removing creosote pilings, repairing pipelines for drinking water and firefighting and, basically, cleaning up the joint. If OK'd, the dredging would likely happen during the fall "fish window" — October through February — when the river is relatively free of migratory fish. Fishies aren't always thrilled when dredging stirs up a gazillion tons of river silt.
"For many people, it's surprising that our facility here is linked so closely to international shipping," said Kanareff. "Over here, we sometimes don't think about our ties to global markets — but in this case, it's a crucial part of our production."