POLITICS

Plant Shutdown Threatens Pennsylvania Town's Water Supply

Allegheny Technologies has already locked out its workers in a labor dispute.
Richard Harshman is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Allegheny Technologies Inc.
Richard Harshman is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Allegheny Technologies Inc.

The tiny town of Midland, Pennsylvania, is worried it won't be able to afford water if the company that owns a local factory gets its way.

In an unusual arrangement, the western Pennsylvania town has bought water from the steel mill on the Ohio River for the past hundred years. But now the company that owns the plant, Allegheny Technologies Incorporated, wants to charge a much higher rate for the water that the town says it can't pay.

Dan Donatella has worked for the Municipal Authority for the Borough of Midland as a consultant for more than 20 years. He said the town of 2,600 won't pay what the company wants to charge. 

"Midland Borough is an economically depressed community," Donatella said. "This is a crisis for us."

The authority said that until now, it paid roughly $250,000 per year and that ATI has jacked the annual price to $1.4 million, citing the cost of pumping the water, maintenance and wages for eight workers. 

The company, a Pittsburgh-based specialty metals supplier boasting $4 billion in revenues, announced in December it would idle its Midland steel plant for a year or two because excess steel supply had made operations less profitable. Allegheny also happens to be in the midst of a labor dispute in which it had locked out more than 2,000 union workers from 12 plants in six states, including at the Midland plant. The National Labor Relations Board deemed the lockout illegal last week, setting up a potential trial. 

Midland officials said they didn't think ATI's water issue was connected to the lockout. A spokesperson for the United Steelworkers union, which represents the workers, didn't respond to a request for comment.

A company spokesman said ATI would continue to operate the water pumping station and share costs.

"We will work with the [Midland water authority] to explore options to the current arrangement, all in an effort to minimize the impact of the idling of ATI Midland Operations on the MWA and the local community," ATI spokesman Dan Greenfield said in an email.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has gotten involved, asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help Midland build infrastructure to pump water from the river itself. A USDA spokeswoman told HuffPost the agency's rural development office is working with Midland "to explore ways we can help them affordably finance the needed water infrastructure improvements.”

Midland buys and treats raw water that ATI pumps from the Ohio River, then sells the treated water back to the company and to several thousand consumers who live in and around the borough. Before it was idled, the plant itself had been the borough's largest water customer. But as of this month, the company is no longer buying treated water back from the town, so it has less interest in staffing the intake system. 

Donatella said Midland will keep paying the rate it had paid before and that if the company threatens to shut off the water, the authority will go to court to get an injunction. Long-term, Midland had already been exploring options for building its own water intake facility.

"What we want, ultimately, is for ATI to have the factory up and running again," said Joe Widener, chief of staff for the Beaver County Board of Commissioners. For now, Widener said the commission wants ATI and Midland to reach some kind of water agreement.

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