It doesn't help that Sparrows Point competes with newer and more technologically advanced steel plants, analysts said. And Sparrows Point lacks the advantage of steel mills in the Midwest, which are closer to iron ore mines, experts say.

One possible buyer analysts have pointed to is CSN, a Brazilian steel company with access to raw materials. But there is another U.S. mill that might prove more attractive to CSN and other potential buyers. German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp is trying to sell a more modern facility it owns in Alabama.

Some economists and others have called on state and county officials to put together an incentive package that could include a property tax break, for example, to attract potential buyers for Sparrows Point.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose district includes Sparrows Point, said he was "deeply troubled" by the impact of the plant's idling on workers. Ruppersberger has a personal interest in protecting the facility because his father once worked there.

He said he'll continue to work with U.S. trade officials to ensure that American manufacturers have access to raw materials from producers abroad.

The U.S. government has been fighting limits on exports of raw materials from countries like China that officials say put American manufacturers at an unfair disadvantage. Earlier this year, the World Trade Organization appeals body ruled against China's efforts to curb exports of raw materials in the steel, aluminum and chemicals industries.

The latest uncertainty at Sparrows Point is "one example of why we must continue to fight for an even playing ground in markets around the world," Ruppersberger said.

Kamenetz isn't ready to present an incentive package at this point, but he said the county is working with employees to provide unemployment assistance and job training. He also said the county has been working on development opportunities in Sparrows Point outside the plant. An initiative will be announced next week, he added.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she too would help to find a new buyer. "The fates of several thousand men and women and their families, as well as a significant portion of the domestic steel industry in the United States, hang in the balance," she said in a statement.

As an alternative to selling the plant outright, Liebman said, RG Steel could find buyers for specific lines there, or specific functions or equipment could be sold, dismantled and shipped elsewhere.

RG Steel blamed an "immediate, unexpected liquidity crisis" for the shutdown as its lenders cut off credit to maintain operations. The company said it doesn't know if the idling of the plant will be temporary or permanent.

Sparrows Point workers seem to have become numb to the constant uncertainty, and some just hope they can hold on to a job. Older workers say it may be time to retire.

"I don't think anybody's surprised," said Bob Barrett, a member of the central maintenance crew. He stopped by a local hangout, Micky's bar, after his shift ended Thursday, the day the layoffs were announced.

He and other workers said there were signs that something was going to happen with the plant, including the fresh coat of paint at the facility. It is clear to the employees, he said, that RG Steel does not have the money to keep the mill going.

"I've been saying for about six weeks that they would be putting the place up for sale," said Barrett, who has worked at Sparrows Point for almost 48 years.

He said he's not concerned if this ends up being his last layoff: "I can hang up my hat any time."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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