Intalco Works (Ferndale)

Located along the Strait of Georgia in Ferndale, Washington, the Intalco Aluminum Works, now known as the Alcoa Intalco Works, is the largest smelter of aluminum in the United States. The facility covers 300 acres and employed 1,150 people at its peak. This smelter is the highest single consumer of electricity in the northwestern U.S. During the 2000-2001 California Energy Crisis, Intalco Aluminum Works was paid to cease operation so that the electricity normally consumed by the facility could be sold to the state. Today, the facility employs about 640 people and operates at two-thirds capacity.

Originally owned by Alumax, Pechiney and Howmet, the smelter started operating in 1966. First, Intalco operated it, and then Alcoa, the largest producer of aluminum in the U.S., took over operations. This facility produces primary aluminum using the Hall-Heroult reduction process, the main industrial method for producing aluminum. By this process, alumina is dissolved in molten cryolite, and the solution is electrolyzed to obtain pure aluminum. The Hall-Heroult reduction process was the first to allow the economical extraction of aluminum.

Aluminum comes from the raw material alumina, produced from bauxite. Two tons of alumina yield one ton of aluminum through the Hall-Heroult process. This would be enough metal for 60,000 beverage cans or seven automobile frames.  The Intalco Aluminum Works uses this process in three potlines, but two of the three are idle currently. The smelter can produce 278,000 metric tons of aluminum each year, but current capacity is about 90,000 metric tons each year. When the aluminum is poured from the pots, then it is cast into ingots or molds and sent to customers.

Alcoa, or the Aluminum Corporation of America, holds third place among the world’s largest producers of aluminum. Founded in 1888 in Pittsburgh, which today is still the company’s headquarters, Alcoa has facilities in 44 countries. In 2007, its revenues exceeded $30 billion. Current subsidiaries of Alcoa include Halco Mining, Kawneer and Howmet Castings, and Reynolds Metals. The company also operates another smelter at Malaga, known as the Alcoa Wenatchee Works.

Asbestos use was standard in power plants, worksites, and factories through the 20th century. Facilities, including Alcoa Intalco Works, utilized asbestos because it offered great resistance to electricity and heat. Though its capacity as an insulator definitely protected property and people for a short time, the devastating consequences of its use were later seen as many workers developed serious illnesses.