Hemelt: Jobs announcement completes major Noranda turnaround

Published 12:03 am Saturday, May 27, 2017

A January 2016 headline out of New Orleans read, “Gramercy’s Noranda alumina plant could close; 444 jobs at stake.” Another headline two months later warned “113 jobs at risk as Noranda salvages Gramercy alumina plant.”

Things looked bleak a little more than a year ago for the 60-year-old refinery that employs hundreds and operates as the financial backbone for thousands, many in our River Parishes.

When threats of closure were announced 16 months ago, Noranda officials cited concerns with Jamaican government bauxite fees and falling aluminum prices.

Yet, a remarkable turnaround has occurred.

The partners of DADA Holdings, an investment and management company based in Florida, acquired some Noranda operations in late 2016, including its alumina refining in Gramercy and Jamaican bauxite mining assets.

DADA Holdings doubled down on the move by establishing the River Parishes as its Noranda corporate headquarters, allowing the operation to produce smelter-grade alumina for the production of aluminum, as well as chemical-grade alumina for the production of other products.

The corporate headquarters news, announced last week by Gov. John Bel Edwards and Noranda Bauxite & Alumina CEO David D’Addario, came with more positives for our region, mainly a promise for local expansion and the addition of 65 jobs.

Noranda Executive Vice President John Habisreitinger told me the purchase of the bauxite and alumina assets away from the old Noranda creates a first-time, stand-alone business and plenty of opportunities.

“We’re well positioned from a standpoint of raw materials, with a lot of our key raw materials being produced right there in the state of Louisiana and Southeastern Louisiana,” Habisreitinger said. “We have, we believe, a strong pool of people. When you think about it, we’ve been running that business in Gramercy for 60 years now. It’s been a pool of people who really know that business and we’re really happy to preserve those jobs and expand on them as we move forward.”

Noranda hasn’t always enjoyed a stellar reputation with St. John the Baptist Parish Council members, some of whom complained in August that residents concerned with dusting and staining associated with red dirt near the alumina refinery were having a hard time receiving feedback from plant officials.

District 2 Councilwoman Julia Remondet’s district sits on the East Bank and touches up against the parish line between St. John and St. James.

Although stressing she has not especially sought local feedback, Remondet said she has not heard from anyone in St. John concerned with Noranda.

“I’ve not had any complaints voiced to me about stuff with Noranda; nobody called and told me anything about that,” she said.

Remondet welcomed Noranda’s jobs announcement, saying we all benefit anytime employment opportunities are created in the region.

“Of course we want everything to be here in St. John, but it’s good when there are new jobs anywhere in this tri-parish region,” she said.

“Either they will hire some of our people or some of those people hired at that facility may be leaving another job that then creates a new opening. The River Parishes are so intertwined with family members and friends in different parishes. It’s always good when more jobs are created.”

Councilman at Large Larry Sorapuru said he welcomes news of Noranda’s economic expansion but is maintaining a watchful eye on resident response.

Sorapuru said the previous ownership consistently showed a lack of respect to residents who complained of red dirt coating their homes and impacting their breathing, some from as far away as Wallace.

In speaking with Noranda representatives, St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said it is the belief this industry expansion can make a positive difference in many people’s lives.

“This is a statement on their part that they want to continue to be a large part of our community, because St. James Parish is a great place to live, work, play and grow,” Roussel said.

The positive news this month marks an amazing turnaround for a company and community that potentially saw only negatives a year ago.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.