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Energy-Efficiency Pitch Brings Funds

Ailing Fiberglass Maker May Benefit

Over the past two years, almost a hundred people have been laid off from Owens Corning Plant in Newark, Ohio. However, because President Obama's stimulus package gives money to businesses who produce "green products," some furloughed workers may be hired back.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

NEWARK, Ohio -- Tracy Posey is No. 11. Until she was laid off a year ago, she worked on an assembly line, packing fiberglass insulation the consistency of cotton candy. She found work, but longs for her old job at the Owens Corning factory where "glass wool" was invented more than 75 years ago.

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While she clings to the 11th spot on her union's seniority list, Owens Corning has been lobbying hard for federal stimulus dollars in Washington and Columbus. It has cited the Newark plant and workers such as Posey to attract the maximum sums possible for the prosaic work of defending attics against summer heat and winter cold.

With $5 billion allocated to low-income U.S. households for energy-efficiency upgrades, the Toledo-based company persuaded two Ohio Democrats -- Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Zack Space -- to add a line to the stimulus bill that could make it easier to spend money on attic insulation.

To increase sales in Ohio, executives wooed Gov. Ted Strickland (D) as well as the community workers who will spend much of the $276 million the state receives for weatherization projects. David Reinbolt, who heads a coalition of nonprofit groups, listened to the pitch and summed it up this way: "They want to fill attics with the pink stuff."

Owens is one of thousands of companies, governments, community groups and others vying for stimulus dollars that are starting to filter out from Washington. More than 25,000 proposals have been filed on Ohio's stimulus Web site alone. "There's got to be $50 or $100 in requests for every $1 we've got," the state budget director, J. Pari Sabety, said several weeks and several thousand requests ago.

Final applications for the federal weatherization funds were due this month, with the first $2.5 billion expected to reach the states by September. Ohio has announced tens of millions in federal spending and plans to begin spending money for weatherization projects June 1, providing former workers such as Posey hope that they can regain their $18-an-hour assembly-line jobs.

The Fortune 500 company is being careful not to promise work for Posey or dozens of other Newark workers laid off when the housing market collapsed. But Owens Corning officials frequently pitch the resurrection of the company's oldest plant in its pleas to state and federal authorities.

The early history of fiberglass insulation, a utilitarian product only slightly jazzed up by the company's adoption of the Pink Panther logo, was written largely in Newark. The factory has existed since the 1800s and was once said to be the world's largest bottle-making plant.

The market for attic insulation, which Owens Corning makes in Newark and elsewhere, shrank dramatically when the housing market collapsed. The company sells more residential insulation than anyone else, but it has been shedding workers, including 150 in Newark, since 2007. Owens Corning operates 18 factories in nearly a dozen states.

To bulk up again, Owens Corning designed a strategy to benefit from the country's increasing cost consciousness and its energy and environmental awareness. Homes leak energy, studies show, and to company executives that sounds like an opportunity.

"It's going to take time for the public to recognize that their homes and not their cars are consuming more of our energy," said John Libonati, Owens Corning's representative in Washington. "It's going to take time to get the words 'attic' and 'insulation' out into the public domain."

Owens Corning invited Strickland to its Toledo headquarters in April 2008 for an event staged like a political rally and broadcast to plants across Ohio. Libonati called it "a day to build a relationship and remind him who we are. We didn't ask for anything."


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