GOOSE CREEK -- Alcoa crane operator Patterson James, 43, is delaying plans to marry because the aluminum-smelting plant where he has worked for a decade could close if his employer is unable to negotiate lower electricity rates.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of things on hold," said James' fiancee, Joy Lawson.
James and Lawson were among hundreds who attended a town-hall-style meeting with Gov. Nikki Haley at the Alcoa Mount Holly plant Thursday. The governor assured employees that she would help find a solution to the company's astronomical power bills, but did not offer any specifics.
"We will not let power be the reason why you all don't have a job," Haley said.
But she also said, "We don't know what's going to happen."
For now, all the governor and officials at Alcoa and state-owned utility Santee Cooper will say is that negotiations are ongoing. They have been ongoing for about two years, according to the Moncks-Corner-based power provider.
Despite the lack of good news, Haley received a warm welcome from Alcoa employees, who lined up for photographs with her after her appearance. Several workers spoke at the gathering, telling the governor how Alcoa jobs had put their kids through college and paid for their homes.
"I was able to build a house when I was 20 years old," Randy Davis told Haley.
According to Alcoa, the average wage at the Mount Holly plant is $91,000 a year, including benefits.
"I want to see this place stay here for 20 or 30 more years so that I can send my kids to college," said A.J. Nelson, 26, who has worked at Alcoa for nearly six years.
Alcoa officials said the facility is one of their most productive, but $4 million weekly power bills can't be sustained. Alcoa employs 560 full-time workers at the electricity-intensive Mount Holly smelter off U.S. Highway 53, as well as about 80 full-time contractors.
"This has the highest power cost of any smelter in the United States," said Bob Wilt, president of Alcoa Global Primary Products in the U.S.
The company pays for electricity at the rate Santee Cooper charges its industrial customers, under a contract with the utility that expires in 2015. The company wants to renegotiate a new, long-term deal with lower rates.
"They have asked for a unique rate," said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper's public relations director. "Our goal is to reach a solution that works for Alcoa and keeps them in our community."
Santee Cooper is a nonprofit company owned by the state, with a board of directors appointed by the governor.
Haley said power costs are not just an issue facing Alcoa, but a regional issue that will need to be broadly addressed.