The old economy of fiery metal twitches to life in the hands of Clint Adams, a 20-year-old relief operator in the Eastalco aluminum smelting plant in Frederick County, as he guides what must be the world's largest wind chime.
More than a dozen 2,000-pound aluminum cylinders, known as billets, hang vertically overhead, suspended from nooses made of steel cable. Using a joystick, the West Virginian gracefully guides the billets from their position near one of the plant's furnaces to a long, broad table in a maneuver known as "stripping the pit."
Like most of the operations at this 400-acre plant hidden in the quiet farmlands west of Frederick, stripping the pit requires finesse combined with a lot of power. Although an ordinary American uses 10 megawatts of electricity in a year, the 35-year-old plant burns 350 megawatts an hour -- largely because electricity is a key ingredient in the electrochemical process of making aluminum. This makes the Eastalco Aluminum Co. plant, which produces 8 percent of the country's aluminum, one of the largest consumers of electricity in the state.
With Eastalco's electricity expenses set to increase by $78 million, or 80 percent, at the end of this year, the plant's manager is warning that the plant will close unless it is able to agree on a new contract with its energy supplier, Allegheny Power. The contract expires Dec. 31. Spokesmen for Allegheny and Alcoa, the aluminum giant that owns the Eastalco plant, say negotiations between the companies are at an impasse.
At a recent news conference, the plant's manager, Brian S. Dahlberg, said that unless market conditions change or the government steps in to resolve the deadlock, "there is a 100 percent chance we will shut down" at the end of the year. The 639 employees of the plant, mostly from Frederick County and Western Maryland, along with more than 100 from West Virginia, would be laid off.
The rising electricity costs, he said, were a result of deregulation of electricity in Maryland. Although competition among electricity providers is supposed to allow customers to shop around for the best price, in practice the cost of generating electricity has gone up because natural gas and coal, which fire many power plants, are much more expensive than they were five years ago -- in 2000, a megawatt hour cost $32.72; now it is $44.34. Complicating matters further is the fact that Allegheny Energy is split into two branches: Allegheny Power, which controls electricity transmission, and Allegheny Energy Supply, which generates it.
"Fundamentally, things in the state of Maryland have changed with deregulation," Allegheny spokesman Allen Staggers said. "We would have to go out to the marketplace and buy power at market prices, to sell to Eastalco at lower than market price. It would be a loss to us."
Staggers suggested the plant could seek another, less expensive provider of electricity, and Dahlberg said he had investigated that possibility. But he still hoped the state government would take action.
"We're going to try to get government officials to understand what we provide," Dahlberg said. "We want to save this industry. We want to save these jobs."
Although Frederick County commissioners have sent a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) asking for action by the state's Public Service Commission, it appears that the government's role will be restricted by the very laws it has passed since Maryland began to deregulate utilities in 1999.
"The best deal has got to be a deal negotiated between the two companies," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development. "It's a global market, and there's not much a state government can do to interfere with those kind of commodity pricing factors."
State Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Frederick), a member of the Senate's special commission on electric utility deregulation, said Alcoa and other companies had pressed for deregulation in the first place and now would have to ride out its effects.
"The market is the market," Brinkley said. "I don't see the state getting materially involved at all. We want to do anything we can to make sure that [Alcoa] can maintain their presence, be a good, successful member of the community, but at the same time they and Allegheny have to work out whatever their issues are."
Christine Nizer, the spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, said the commission would meet with representatives of Alcoa and Allegheny on Friday. "Obviously we are required to comply with the restrictions in the law," Nizer said. "The commission is looking into whether there is anything we can do within those constraints."
Back at the plant, the pace of operations is such that the workers have little time to reflect on their situation.
On a recent day in a small section of the plant, workers in flame-retardant blue shirts and hard hats moved briskly through their routine -- pouring molten metal, casting aluminum ingots and driving materials from place to place -- as Eric Phillips, the cast house manager, and Jack Dayley, the health and safety manager, kept a close eye on activities. Phillips said the plant processes about 1.25 million pounds of aluminum a day.
"How many beer cans is that?" Dayley asked his colleague.
"That's a lot of beer cans, Jack," Phillips replied.
As a salaried employee with Alcoa, Phillips does not have to worry about losing his job. But he is troubled about his work crew.
There is high turnover among workers in the cast house -- the work is hard and unrelenting, in a hot, metallic-smelling plant -- but Clint Adams, master of stripping the pit, says he is here for the long haul.
"I love it," Adams said. "I'd like to make a career here."