COLUMBIA FALLS - A Bonneville Power Administration spokesman said Thursday an agreement is near that would keep the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. closed for up to two more years.

Ed Mosey, chief press officer for the federal agency said the plant's 303 hourly and salaried employees would continue to receive full wages and benefits during the shutdown.

Another 245 employees who were laid off earlier this year and who will continue to be paid through December aren't included in the proposal, he said.

To avoid massive increases in wholesale power rates later this year, the BPA is trying to reduce electrical demand, and shutting down the Pacific Northwest's aluminum industry would be a big plus.

BPA also is asking its utility customers to decrease their load requirements by 5 to 10 percent for the next five years.

Alcoa Inc. was the first plant to accept the offer. It agreed earlier this week to shut down its Ferndale, Wash., aluminum smelter, saving about 400 megawatts of electricity.

In exchange, Mosey said, Bonneville will pay the company $15 to $20 per megawatt hour, to be used for employee compensation. Another $1.75 million will go to help offset local government tax losses.

"I think we're close" to reaching an agreement with CFAC, he said. There might be some minor differences compared to the Alcoa deal, but the overall economics should be similar.

"One of the stipulations Alcoa made was that we wouldn't sign an agreement with the other aluminum plants that was sweeter than what it got," Mosey said.

CFAC has a contract with Bonneville to buy 171 megawatts from January, 2001 through September, 2006. At $15 to $20 per megawatt hour, the company would receive $22.5 million to $29.9 million per year for curtailing that demand.

Part of the money could be used to buy electricity from another supplier, Mosey said.

CFAC spokesman Haley Beaudry said the company is "seriously" negotiating with Bonneville, but added that getting the plant back in operation continues to be its primary objective.

"Our goal is to get the plant open again," Beaudry said. "We're trying to find a way to do that."

Negotiations with CFAC and other big power users, including utility customers, need to be completed by the end of this month, Mosey said.

"What we're asking the aluminum producers to do is agree to remain off-line for up to two years," he said. "If they don't agree, then we'll have to assume that we need to meet that load."

BPA doesn't expect the 29 federal hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin to produce enough power to meet all the demand it's facing. If the agency has to buy power on the open market to meet CFAC's contract, it would cost about $450 million at current prices, Mosey said, and that would be passed on to all customers this fall in the form of higher rates.

"Our estimate is that for every aluminum worker who stays on the job, four jobs will be lost in other industries," Mosey said.

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