Kitimat and Alcan celebrate 60 years of a (mostly) happy relationship

Growth poses problems for one of B.C.’s oldest, ongoing town-and-company relationships

Few communities embody the term ‘company town’ like Kitimat. For six decades, the Aluminum Company of Canada (and as of 2007, Rio Tinto Alcan) has operated its aluminum smelter—once one of B.C.’s largest industrial facilities—in the town. The town and Alcan celebrated that sixtieth anniversary of that relationship on Friday and Saturday.

Now, after years of occasionally rocky relations between the town and company—and many an economic downtown—Rio Tinto is on the cusp of completing a $4.8 billion revitalization project of its plant. According to the company, it’s one of the largest private investments in the province.

In 2015, Rio Tinto will finish up construction of its smelter modernization, which employed 3,000 at its peak this summer. The project, which is 70 per cent finished as of July, which will increase production capacity by 48 per cent, to 420,000 tons per year, and will reduce overall emissions by up to 50 per cent.

Built 1953, the smelter was for decades Kitimat’s economic engine; and that relationship, at times, has been tense. In 2005, things got so bad that the District of Kitimat actually sued Alcan. But fast-forward five years and the town is rife with LNG-related development—both speculative and currently underway—and is striving to meet the employment needs of its top employer, Rio Tinto Alcan. Construction demands led the company to bring in a former cruise liner in March to house 450 temporary workers, which both partners hoped would heal boomtown tensions.