US diplomat focussed on Aughinish crisis

US diplomat focussed on Aughinish crisis
Charge d'affaires Reece Smyth, US Embassy made a visit to Smarttech security operations centre on Thursday 10th May 2018, pictured with Ronan Murphy, CEO, Smarttech. Pic credit: Larry Cummins.

By Pádraig Hoare

The acting US ambassador to Ireland has said the delicate situation surrounding the future of Aughinish Alumina in Limerick is being “discussed at the highest levels of our two governments”.

Chargé d’affaires Reece Smyth, who is heading up the embassy while it awaits an official appointment from the Trump administration, said Washington is “taking seriously” the concerns over the fate of the Russian Rusal-owned Aughinish Alumina, which employs 450 staff and more than 200 agency workers.

The jobs have been under a cloud as US sanctions imposed on the plant’s owner, Rusal, played havoc with metal markets over the past few weeks.

Mr Smyth told the Irish Examiner: “The Irish Government has raised Aughinish Alumina both in Washington and here in Dublin. We’re taking Irish concerns seriously. The treasury secretary pushed off until October the implementation, and this is being discussed at the highest levels of our governments.”

The US Treasury has now given American companies until October 23 instead of June 5 to wind down business with Rusal.

The Trump administration has accused Rusal’s majority owner, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, of having too close ties to the Kremlin.

And yesterday, Rusal — the world’s biggest aluminium producer — warned about the likely “materially adverse” effects of the sanctions even as it posted a 20% increase in earnings to $572m (€481m) in the three months to the end of March. The firm had tapped higher aluminium prices and increased output in the period.

Its shares slid a further 7% in the latest session, adding to its huge losses since the US first threatened sanctions. It also emerged that rival Glencore and Rusal have asked the London Metal Exchange to temporarily lift its suspension on Rusal’s aluminium after an extension of the US deadline.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys raised Aughinish with US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross in Washington earlier this week. The Department said it was closely engaging with the firm and its management and continues “to keep the situation under close and careful review”.

“Minister Humphreys raised the situation at Aughinish Alumina during the course of the meeting. Secretary Ross was acutely aware of the situation,” the department said.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he was “closely monitoring developments” and has been in regular contact with the Irish ambassador to the US over Aughinish.

The threat of sanctions has also affected other large companies. Mining giant Rio Tinto has plants in France and Iceland that use the Irish alumina, and Liberty House Group’s Scottish smelter also depends on the site.

Mr Deripaska has agreed in principle to reduce his stake in En+ Group, which holds his 48% stake in Rusal, after the US said it could remove Rusal from the sanctions list if he ceded control.

Though Rusal said the longer-term effects of the sanctions and the threat of additional future sanctions are difficult to determine, the company nonetheless warned that the effect is highly likely to be “materially adverse”.

Its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation of $572m in the quarter was driven by a 19.5% rise in revenues of $2.7bn.

Additional reporting, Reuters.

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