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Solar Supplier Warns Of Big Layoffs If Trade Dispute Drags On Longer

REC Silicon's polysilicon factory in Moses Lake, Washington.
REC Silicon
REC Silicon's polysilicon factory in Moses Lake, Washington.

Solar company REC Silicon Tuesday warned of big layoffs at a factory in central Washington if a trade dispute between the U.S. and China drags on much longer.

The issue is one of many on the table during the state visit to the U.S. this week by China's president.

REC Silicon said about 400 workers at its polysilicon factory in Moses Lake, Washington, will have to be laid off "very soon" unless it regains access to the Chinese market. Polysilicon is key raw material for making solar panels.

China slapped punitive tariffs on the U.S. export in retaliation for U.S. anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese solar cell exports. A complaint from Oregon-based manufacturer SolarWorld started this tiff in 2011.

"We've been shut out of the China market as a result of this retaliatory and very political trade case,” REC Silicon Vice President of Legal and Business Development Francine Sullivan said. “The China market was 80 percent of the market for our products."

Sullivan said half of the production at the big Moses Lake manufacturing plant was shut down this summer, but affected workers were reassigned to maintenance tasks to avoid furloughs until now.

"If the dispute continues to be unresolved, then we will be faced with a (full) shutdown decision and there will be 400 jobs at risk very soon," Sullivan said.

Overall employment at REC Silicon's Moses Lake facility totals 720.

Sullivan was invited to a Tuesday evening banquet in Seattle headlined by President Xi Jinping. However, she does not expect an announcement of a breakthrough on the solar trade issue -- if one happens at all -- until the Chinese delegation reaches Washington, D.C.

"In the last 24 hours I have spoken with the Chinese minister of commerce and the ambassador and encouraged them to reach an agreement that will benefit both Chinese and American solar and polysilicon industries," Washington Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement Tuesday. "While we in Washington look forward to hosting Chinese leaders this week and exploring economic and cultural opportunities that will benefit our state and both nations, there remain outstanding issues that must be resolved in the spirit of economic collaboration."

When contacted Tuesday, a spokesman for the International Trade Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce was not aware of any imminent resolution to the solar trade dispute.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.