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This article was originally published by The Lawton Constitution

Friendly people in an Oklahoma setting, a steady supply of workers and an incentive package influenced the decision to make Lawton the home of the nation’s first cobalt and nickel refinery.

Westwin Elements CEO KaLeigh Long, whose Oklahoma roots begin in Bartlesville, said she deliberately selected Lawton for that plant. She explained she likes the community, she likes the proximity of Fort Sill and the workers it can supply, and local economic efforts led by the Lawton Economic Development Corporation offered an attractive incentive package. And, as an Okie, she was determined the plant would be located in her home state.

That plant, to be built in phases, will be unique because it will be the only one in the United States capable of refining cobalt, nickel and other crucial metals. The material is important to U.S. defense because of the military aircraft and equipment that use it. It also has commercial applications because cobalt is used in computers, cell phones and batteries, including those that power electric vehicles.

Why Lawton?

Long said Oklahoma in general and Lawton in particular fit her vision for the company.

“Most of my childhood was in Oklahoma. I love Oklahoma. I have a personal interest in Oklahoma,” Long said, adding Oklahoma also is emerging as a player in critical metallurgy.

“Oklahomans understand the relevance (of the process) and it is a good business environment,” she said, of work that will give the U.S. independence from China for a “very valuable metal.”

Lawton comes into play for a variety of reasons.

“Lawton has a very enticing incentive package,” Long said, of the $24 million in incentives the City of Lawton and Comanche County Industrial Development Authority will provide if the company meets specific milestones set in the redevelopment agreement, as well as Lawton’s commitment to provide the water and sewer infrastructure for the site.

An equally strong lure comes in the form of workforce.

“We need a pool of trained operators,” Long said, explaining while the company will train those workers, it must find those willing to work and Fort Sill factors heavily into that equation because of the steady stream of soldiers who retire or exit the Army there each year. “That seems like an excellent place to recruit labor. We believe these soldiers to be incredibly responsible and a great source of operators.”

And, Fort Sill’s primary mission — the security of the nation — reflects Westwin Element’s goal, Long said.

“Our project is of critical national interest,” she said, explaining there is a bill pending in Congress to rebuild the supply of critical metals in the National Defense Stockpile.

She said the refinery would give the nation a domestic source for those crucial metals. With military defense contractors already having connections locally because of their work with the U.S. Army and Fort Sill, “there’s just a lot of synergy already in Lawton.”

Long also admits to being influenced by the community itself.

“I love the culture and the people of Lawton,” she said. “Lawton felt down to earth to me. I thought there was just an overall, kindness and effect. We shopped sites all over the country — Ohio, South Carolina, Texas — and we looked at a few other sites in Oklahoma and, basically, with the labor and combination incentive package, Lawton was an obvious choice for us.”

The workforce

Long said while engineers are critical — there will be a lot of them by the time the plant is fully operational in five years — operators will make up the vast majority of workers inside the plant. She said the company will train those operators, putting them through six months of training that will be done even before Westwin Elements commissions the plant.

“It’s a unique area of metal refining. There’s not a lot of standard operators out there to poach,” she said, saying a key will be finding workers with refinery operating experience, “even if the process is nothing like our process.”

Long said her company also wants to partner with universities in Oklahoma to “grow” their own workforce, establishing vapor metallurgy departments within university engineering departments so Westwin Elements can begin training young engineers.

“It’s very important to us to have those partners, develop our own engineers, incentivize them to stay with Westwin,” she said.

Long said Westwin Elements already has about 20 people on board, in roles ranging from corporate executives to engineers who already are taking on the lion’s share of the work associated with a refinery using a new technology. While the Canada-based CVMR and its CEO Kamran Khozan still is involved (they are 35 percent of the partnership and Khozan holds more than 30 patents in vapor metallurgy), Long said Westwin Elements now has its own in-house engineering staff that is taking the lead on the project.

Combination of factors made Lawton attractive for new refinery, CEO says

Mar 5, 2023

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