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Last group of Century Ravenswood retirees lose health care today

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CHARLESTON, WV -

Century Aluminum Retiree Spokeswoman Karen Gorrell hasn't heard any good news in a while.

She hasn't heard much news at all about the Ravenswood plant that Century closed in 2009.

"I'm terrified and anxious for the call," Gorrell said about the company's next conference call. "It's just so quiet right now."

She's right. There isn't much to say right now in the story of the smelter that eliminated 650 jobs when it closed and then took away the health care for retirees.

"Century remains committed to restarting the Ravenswood smelter, but I have no updates for you at the present time," Century's Spokesman Mike Dildine said in a July 1 email. Susan Small, director of communications for the Public Service Commission of West Virginia, said the case for Century Aluminum has been removed from the open docket and the ball is in the company's court.

July 1 passed without much notice.

The date marked the expiration of the settlement Century reached with retirees and also the date the COBRA coverage expires for the last group of workers.

The question of whether Century would reopen its Ravenswood plant has been an open-ended one for years now. The plant approached the West Virginia Legislature in 2012, and a new law was passed – setting up a tax credit and allowing a special power price for certain energy intensive industrial consumers. It also took the retirees and their health benefits into consideration.

Century went into rate negotiations with Appalachian Power and those negotiations were dispatched to the PSC for a rate hearing case that stretched from May through December of 2012, when the PSC denied a rate reconsideration of its Oct. 4, 2012 order.

Century announced the special rate wouldn't be enough to restart the Ravenswood plant.

And all along, the retirees hung in the balance.

"They needed us off their backs and on their side," Gorrell said. "We just feel totally used by Century, and we're not the only people saying that.

"We're just dangling out here."

Gorrell said she's actually glad the agreement the retirees had with Century is expired and never got filed in court, because it was so altered by the company the retirees could no longer agree.

"We tried to be fair and reasonable," she said. "We thought that if everybody sacrificed a little, maybe we could all be winners."

Gorrell said some retirees fear a change in government and leadership that could cut them out of the equation. But she doesn't.

"I'm so amazed, and so honored and proud of what our state did for us, and our Legislature … they just put their arms around us," she said. "If it wasn't for us, this wouldn't have happened."

Gorrell explained how the retirees lost their benefits in waves, starting in 2010. Retirees younger than age 65 were told that their coverage would be continued until they each reached 65. But after just one year, on Jan. 1, 2011, those benefits were terminated, Gorrell said.

She said there was a lawsuit about the benefits for the retirees older than age 65, and the younger retirees were added to it without much consultation. All the benefits were lost as a result.

As for the laid-off workers, Gorrell said the union contract mandated health care coverage for two years from the date a worker was laid off, but before that was met, Century mailed letters to laid-off workers who were eligible to retire.

She said the company offered retiree health care and a $400 bonus on workers' pensions if those employees agreed to retire by a specific date, and 50-some families did. That put 128 people — because spouses were included — who were younger than 65 into the older than 65 group, driving up the costs for coverage.

"They let them retire with health care after they stole all of ours," Gorell said.

But that didn't last long either. Century terminated that coverage Jan. 1, 2013.

"It's so clear that they used retiree health care to entice those guys out of that plant," she said. "It shows you that Century pays no regard to any agreements.

"They honor it when they want to honor it, and they don't when they don't."

Gorrell keeps a close eye on the situation in Kentucky.

In the Bluegrass State, Century announced April 29 it had reached a deal to purchase electricity on the open market and it would purchase all the assets of the Sebree aluminum smelter about an hour away from its Hawesville plant which had been threatened with closure because of electricity prices.

Tom Heywood, a Charleston lawyer with Bowles Rice, lobbies for Century. He said July 1 he did not know of any updates, but the company had been spending a lot of time in Kentucky, focused on its changes and acquisition.

"Century remains very committed to opening the plant in Ravenswood," he said. "They truly are."