Huntington worried about Ash Grove layoffs

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald December 14, 2009 12:59 pm

Huntington business owners and school and city officials worry that temporary layoffs of 68 workers scheduled this afternoon at the Ash Grove cement plant could become permanent under a proposed tightening of mercury emission rules.

“Hopefully these layoffs will be temporary. Ash Grove is vital to this community, and to the entire area,” said Mike Wiley.

“Those are good-paying, steady jobs with good benefits,” said Wiley, who was the third generation in his family to work at Ash Grove before he quit at age 30 and purchased Howell’s Cafe and the Streamliner Lounge — two of a handful of businesses in downtown Huntington.

“My granddad was a welder. He worked there 20 years. My dad retired there. He worked some 30 years as an electrician,” Wiley said. “There’s still seven or eight family members working there, counting cousins and in-laws and everything.”

Ash Grove is considered one of the best employers in the region, but while most people who land jobs there make it a lifetime career, Wiley said he left after 12 years to pursue his dream of owning his own business in his hometown of Huntington.

“Probably 15 to 20 percent of my regular clientele either work at the plant or retired from there,” Wiley said.

The layoffs of 68 of the plant’s 116 workers that start today are related to the slow economy and falling demand for cement. While a mid-February return to work is planned provided the demand for cement picks up, Wiley said there’s definitely a concern around Huntington that if the EPA doesn’t amend the mercury rules that have been proposed, this plant and other cement plants across the country could be forced to shut down, possibly permanently.

“It’s definitely a concern. Without those local jobs, the workers will have to move and take their families with them,” Wiley said.

“There’s a concern that it could have kind of a snowball effect. If the enrollment at the Huntington school goes way down, the state could make a decision to close the school,” Wiley said.

Wiley said if Ash Grove shuts down permanently and if that results in so many families leaving town that Huntington School closes, he’ll shut down his businesses and move too, rather than see his three children be forced to ride the bus more than an hour a day each way to attend schools in Baker City or Ontario.

“The school is the second largest employer, right behind Ash Grove. If Ash Grove closed and they closed the school, there wouldn’t be much left in Huntington.”

The old Highway 30 runs through downtown Huntington, but there’s not much traffic on the road anymore except for some tourist traffic, mostly locals and some boaters, fishermen, hunters and sightseers headed for the Snake River or taking a back-country road to Richland, Halfway and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

There’s a yellow caboose in Lee Stevenson Memorial Park just across from the row of downtown businesses that line old Highway 30, which is called East Washington Street.

Back in 1929, when Huntington’s railroad yard was a regional rail hub, the town’s population swelled to more than 4,000, but today it’s less than 600, Wiley said.

“There’s been some talk that the railroad might come back, but it’s nothing definite. Just talk at this point,” Wiley said.

Since Ash Grove officials have agreed to spend $20 million to install the most efficient high-tech filtering system available to reduce mercury emissions from the cement plant to the lowest attainable levels, Wiley said he feels like the EPA is crossing the line by imposing mercury limits so low the company can’t possibly comply even with the new filtering system.

Candy Howland, a member of the Huntington City Council and owner of Candy’s Corner grocery store in downtown Huntington, said Ash Grove is the town’s biggest contributor to the school and community events and projects.

“Ash Grove donates everything, every time something comes up. They donate items for the children’s tree for children who don’t have presents, they donate to the Lions Club summer get-togethers, they donate to the school sports programs,” Howland said.

“They make a point to hold company picnics in the park downtown. They pay most of the taxes that support the city and the school. If Ash Grove closes, we’ll be down to the nubbins,” Howland said.

Howland said the Huntington City Council sent letters to EPA, to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and to Gov. Ted Kulongoski urging them to support modifications to the proposed EPA mercury limits to allow the plant to continue operating with its new filtering system.

“We sent letters, but we never heard back from them,” Howland said.

What bothers her most is the fact that the EPA’s mercury rules could shut down Ash Grove and other cement plants across the country, and then America would wind up importing concrete from China and other countries that regulate pollution far less.

“They shouldn’t let these businesses go overseas,” Howland said.

At City Hall, Tracy McCue, city recorder, is also concerned about the loss of tax revenues that would result if Ash Grove winds up shutting down permanently due to the stricter EPA mercury limits that have been proposed.

“It would be bad for us and bad for the whole county,” McCue said. “Ash Grove taxes support more than Huntington. They are one of the biggest taxpayers in Baker County.”

Eric Milburn, Huntington School superintendent, said there has been talk that if enrollment drops too far, the 87-student Huntington School might be forced to close.

“This is a concern with the district. We are waiting to see what happens,” Milburn said. “Right now we are in more of a reactive stage.”

“Ash Grove employees and their families are a big part of our school, and a big part of our community,” Milburn said.

Besides the children of Ash Grove workers who attend the school who would likely be leaving if the plant closed down permanently, Milburn said the school would lose its football coach, Travis Young, and the boys basketball coach, Steve McLean, who both work at Ash Grove and coach on the side.