Ash Grove Cement plant in Oregon shutting down, cutting 68 jobs

(Oregon) — Ash Grove Cement Co. announced layoffs yesterday at its Durkee plant in Eastern Oregon and eight other factories around the nation. The Durkee plant, the largest private employer in Baker County, will lose 68 of its 115 employees, Ash Grove said.

“It’s devastating to Baker County,” said Fred Warner Jr., Baker County commission chairman. “These are 68 really good jobs. It’s going to hurt the community.”

Companywide, the shutdown will hit 500 of the company’s 2,800 employees. The Kansas company is the largest U.S.-owned maker of cement. Company officials said they had no schedule to resume manufacturing, but they will continue shipments from cement stockpiles built up in recent months.

The Portland Cement Association said cement consumption dropped 22 percent so far this year on the heels of a double-digit decline in 2008. The association doesn’t expect the demand for cement to rebound until late 2010.

The Ash Grove Cement Co. is shutting down production at its Durkee plant south of Baker City along Interstate 84, idling 68 workers, because of the continued slowdown in construction nationwide.

Ash Grove’s Oregon plant, situated next to Interstate 84 about 30 miles south of Baker City, has been in the headlines for emitting more mercury into the air than any other industrial site in the state. The plant, which mines limestone to process into cement, vents about 2,000 pounds of mercury a year. The mercury occurs naturally in the limestone and is vaporized during the cement-making process.

Mercury can damage the human nervous system if ingested in sufficient quantities and is a particular threat to pregnant women and children. The prime risk is from eating fish from waterways contaminated with mercury. Oregon has issued several advisories, cautioning limits on consuming fish from waterways around the state.

Until recently, Ash Grove faced no regulation for its mercury emissions. Last year, the company struck a deal with the state Department of Environmental Quality to voluntarily cut mercury emissions at Durkee by 75 percent. Construction started this summer on $20 million worth of mercury control equipment designed to hit that target. That work, the first of its kind in the country, will continue despite the shutdown, company officials said.

After Ash Grove reached its agreement with Oregon officials, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed tougher standards for mercury control. Ash Grove officials contend the technology doesn’t exist that would allow Durkee to meet the proposed federal rule. The only option would be to close the plant, the company has said.

State officials initially considered backing Ash Grove’s case before federal regulators, in part to help save the high-paying rural jobs. The state ultimately urged the EPA to compare the environmental impact of keeping Durkee open or closing it and increasing imports of Chinese cement.

The EPA is scheduled to settle on its new mercury rules next year.

Ash Grove Cement Plant Louisville – also hit by Layoffs and Closure:

(Louisville, Nebraska)  —  At Louisville, Ash Grove Cement Co. said it will lay off 87 of its 138 employees four days before Christmas. The company called the layoffs were temporary, but it offered no projections of when workers might be recalled.

The Ash Grove plant at Louisville is one of nine Ash Grove plants in the Midwest and West that will suspend production because of economic conditions in the cement industry.

Product shipments to current and prospective customers will not be affected, the company said, as Ash Grove will draw from inventories built over the past several months.

Several Louisville residents contacted Wednesday said they had not heard about the layoffs.

When it announced last week’s dedication of its new office building, Ash Grove said the company’s annual economic impact in Nebraska is more than $70 million and that it generates nearly 20 percent of the taxes that support the Louisville school district.

Ash Grove operates the only cement plant in Nebraska and distributes its product in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas.

“Our employees are an integral part of the Ash Grove family, and we are hopeful that the economy in our marketing area will recover quickly so production at the Louisville plant can get back to more reasonable levels,” Louisville Plant Manager Dan Peters said in a news release Wednesday.

Peters confirmed the layoffs but referred all questions to a corporate office in Overland Park, Kan.

Production at Ash Grove plants is expected to resume on a rolling start-up basis as sales demand dictates, the company said.

“The economic downturn affecting the entire cement industry is the most severe that Ash Grove has experienced in our 127-year history,” said spokeswoman Jacqueline Clark.

The Portland Cement Association, the industry’s trade association, projected U.S. cement consumption would drop by 22 percent during 2009, preceded by a nearly 16 percent decrease in 2008.

The most recent forecasts by the association project declines in demand could continue through late this year, with a modest recovery expected late next year or early 2011.

Ash Grove said it continued operations during the past year while many competitors announced shutdowns and layoffs.

By: Les Zaitz


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