Electricity costs likely to lengthen Butte mining layoffs

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Electricity costs likely to lengthen Butte mining layoffs

BUTTE (AP)  Montana Resources employees have been warned that layoffs resulting from high electricity prices could last longer than six months. The companys 322 suspended workers were mailed notices on Friday, as required by federal law, said company spokesman Steve Walsh.

The copper mine was forced to halt operations after its electricity contract with Energy Resources of Great Falls expired June 30 and it faced a 20-fold increase in power prices. Electricity is the mines No. 1 operating expense.

The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires employers to inform their workers when a temporary layoff could extend past the six-month mark.

It doesnt mean were not going to start up (sooner), Walsh said. Under the present circumstances we remain optimistic.

The warning letter was enclosed in the copper-mining companys regular newsletter.

It has become reasonably foreseeable that the initial layoff will last beyond six months from the date your employment was originally suspended on July 7, 2000, it says.

Montana Resources officials met with the Northwest Power Planning Council and the Bonneville Power Administration about a week ago and learned the power industry is predicting that electricity prices will not decrease this fall as they traditionally do.

Montana Resources had hoped to resume operations in October or November when prices became affordable.

On Thursday, the going rate for electricity had dropped from $200 a megawatt hour to $106 a megawatt hour, Walsh said. But Montana Resources can afford only about $40 a megawatt hour.

He said employees seem to be taking the warning in stride.

They see it as a formality, he said.

A skeleton crew of 21 employees has remained at work since the company shut down its copper concentrator at midnight June 30.

Company-paid benefits for the laid-off workers will run out on Oct. 31, Walsh said. Employees who wish to keep the benefits can do so after that date by paying their full amount.

In addition, employees are being allowed to borrow money from their retirement plans, Walsh said.

Many laid-off workers have found temporary or permanent jobs fighting fires, at the Stillwater and Golden Sunlight mines and elsewhere, he said. But no one has completely terminated his employment with Montana Resources.

The company intends to rehire its entire workforce as soon as it can secure a reasonable power contract and resume operations, Walsh said.

If the mine does remain shut down for more than six months, Montana Resources and the Atlantic Richfield Co. will have to start designing a treatment plant for contaminated water flowing into the Berkeley Pit from the Horseshoe Bend stream. That water is normally diverted, treated and used in Montana Resources concentrator.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 05, 2000

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