By JAMES M. ODATO
Seven workers at the wollastonite processing plant in Willsboro were laid off by owner Imerys on Friday, another indicator of the weakened financial position of the once thriving Adirondack unit of the global minerals company.
Recently hired site manager Tim Boshart notified the seven men targeted on Thursday. He called the dismissal a “temporary layoff,” but a union official says there is no call-back date and the furloughs seem permanent. It’s the latest setback for workers at a mineral operation where a state land swap approved by New York voters has failed to materialize.
Boshart’s notice attributed the workforce reduction to “a continued decline in orders and the low output of production over the last few weeks.” He offered people beyond the seven targeted for dismissal the chance to be considered for a layoff should they want to join the others.
His notice continued: “The layoff will be reviewed and adjusted as needed to meet business needs.” A message left on Boshart’s work voicemail did not result in a response, but Imerys officials were aware of the call from the Adirondack Explorer, according to Ray Bettis, the union representative for the United Steel Workers.
Bettis met with the company on Friday for clarification on the notice. He said USW members will be filing for unemployment with the understanding that there is no return date. The union represents most of the Imerys workforce in the hamlet, where for 60 years wollastonite mining and processing operations have been conducted. Bettis said he feared that the business won’t spring back.
Sales at the plant, known for years and still referred to as NYCO Minerals, have fallen significantly since the French-based Imerys acquired the operation in 2015. The company has bigger stakes in other minerals that can be used in some of the same products that use the more expensive wollastonite.
Imerys removed local managers, farmed out work, cut staff and chose to discontinue NYCO’s historic mining unit and instead subcontracted that work to a Vermont excavating company with no experience in mining for wollastonite, according to current and past employees. It also decided against expanding the mining of wollastonite in Lewis into a tract of state land known as Lot 8.
Almost five years ago, voters authorized NYCO to mine in Lot 8 under a unique land-swap plan. The proposition passed in a controversial, expensive and spirited campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow the private company to exchange private land for state land. The land-swap opportunity was aimed at giving NYCO an entry into high quality wollastonite deposits and preserving local mining and stone processing jobs.
The company was since sold. Imerys’ business plan shifted from the one presented to voters on the 2013 ballot. The new owner has chosen to mine in an old quarry in Lewis called Oak Hill.
In interviews, long-serving current and former company employees say Oak Hill produces inferior wollastonite to what has been harvested at the Seventy Road mine, next to Lot 8, which has been all but tapped out.
After some preliminary drilling in Lot 8, the company abandoned the expansion project its predecessors said was necessary to sustain growth at the NYCO operation.
Company employees have also said that Imerys has encouraged customers to purchase wollastonite from its Mexico unit. That and an inferior product being processed in New York, and Imerys more aggressive marketing of talc and other substitutes for wollastonite may be combining to result in sales problems at Willsboro, where two processing plants now employ about 36 unionized workers, according to interviews.
The exact number of workers at the operation, which was at 105 when the proposition to swap land was part of the November 2013 elections, is not clear. But union and non-union staff likely add up to closer to half that level, according to people in the Willsboro community and numbers a company official provided this summer.
Demand for wollastonite, a stone used in coatings and in several additives including polymers and plastics for components in cars, has not softened. “I think demand is as strong as it’s ever been for us,” said Ian Begley, president of R.T. Vanderbilt Minerals, which has a wollastonite operation in Gouverneur.
A spokesman of state Sen. Betty Little, who said she intended to talk with company officials when the Explorer contacted her this summer about Imerys, did not immediately return a call.