CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. – A standing room only crowd of over 700 supporters of Noranda’s rate adjustment request gathered at the National Guard Armory in Caruthersville to attend the Public Service Commission’s first of three hearings on the rate adjustment and an overearnings complaint filed against Ameren Missouri. Noranda has stated that without rate relief they could be forced to close the smelter and lay off their over 900 employees.
PSC commissioners Steve Stoll and Daniel Hall heard testimony from 34 people on a night filled with thunderstorms inside and outside of the armory. Of the 34 speakers, 33 testified in support of the rate adjustment and 1 in opposition. The crowd spilled out of the auditorium into the hall where people held signs in support of Noranda and their rate adjustment request.
During the question and answer portion, Warren Wood, Vice President of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs, very deftly handled questions from the hostile crowd. He took a compromising tone beginning by telling the crowd that Ameren “fully understands how important Noranda is to our state.”
Wood told the crowd that cost pressures had driven up rates in recent years, and that Ameren would be asking the PSC for another rate increase later in the year largely because of increasing federal regulations. Wood informed that crowd that for the most part the public only saw them fighting, but they often worked together to fight unnecessary regulations.
When asked if rates would go up if Noranda went out of business, Wood replied, “We believe that our customers are better off with Noranda off our system at $30mwh. If they left the system we would sell the excess power we provide to Noranda on the open market for more than $30mwh.”
Wood stressed several times to the crowd that he was hopeful that a deal could be reached between the parties. “The proposed number is too low. There are numbers above there that very well may be a win-win proposal, but $30 is too low. We hope to find some middle ground here, we just aren’t there yet.”
At one point, Wood laid out his case that the PSC was not the proper body to hear this case; the point was reiterated by Mark Baker, the lone supporter of Ameren that testified. Wood stated that the PSC did not have the legal authority to hear the case. However, John Parker, a spokesman for Noranda, responded, “We are a believer in the PSC process and fully support the PSC being the body making this decision.”
The testimony was led off by state Senator Doug Libla, R-Butler, who told the commissioners that Noranda fights for all consumers at the PSC and in the General Assembly. He said that residential rates would be substantially higher if they were not in business, leading the fight for fair rates.
“Ameren’s rates have gone up 46%. They are legally allowed a 10% rate on return, but according to public documents they have overearned by $100 million dollars, while Noranda has the 2nd highest cost of power of any smelter in the United States,” said Libla.
Libla also said the loss of Noranda to southeast Missouri would be comparable to “St. Louis losing the Cardinals, Boeing, Anheuser Busch, and Express Scripps all at once.”
Former state Representative Terry Swinger, who is from Caruthersville, reminded the commissioners that Noranda provides an annual economic impact of over $300 million dollars to the local economy.
He also stressed that he wasn’t anti-Ameren, just in favor of doing what it took to save the jobs at Noranda. “I’m not here to talk negatively about Ameren, when the ice storm came, many Ameren employees worked 18 hour days to basically rebuild our electric grid. They did a tremendous job restoring the power to our area,” Swinger said.
Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver delivered a letter in support of Noranda’s request signed by every county elected official in the bootheel, 56 in total. Olive told the commissioners that 1 of every 3 children in the bootheel live in poverty and “if we allow Noranda to close, that number will be likely change to instead of one in three living in poverty, we will be looking at only one in three children in the boot heel not living in poverty.”
Perhaps the most compelling case of the night was made by Fred Felton – a retired Army Master Sargent who was employed at the Ormet smelter in Hannibal, Ohio when it closed after the Ohio equivalent of the PSC denied a request for a rate reduction. Fighting through tears, he read the letter the head of the company sent to all employees and described the poverty and unemployment in Hannibal, Ohio today. He then literally begged the commissioners not to allow Noranda to become the next Ormet.
The over three-hour session continued with supporters of the rate request all telling stories of how important Noranda is to the local economy. State Representative Shelley Keeney, R-Bollinger, said, “Several years ago I learned the importance of Noranda to the SEMO area. Since then I have learned that Noranda’s impact reaches over an hour and a half drive to my legislative district with family members and constituents working there. The loss of Noranda would be devastating to the entire region. As legislators we often ask businesses what they need to maintain and grow. Noranda has told us they need fair, competitive electric rates. It is my hope that after hearing the public testimony, the PSC will side with Noranda and rate-payers all across the state who stand to see their rates increase if Noranda closes its doors.”
The hearings will continue tonight in St. Louis and Wednesday night in Jefferson City.