Crews work long hours, hoping to get steel mill running today

Sun Staff

Scratched in chalk on a wall inside the power plant that normally fuels steel production in Sparrows Point are the words Sept. 2003 flood.

They mark the point about 5 1/2 feet from the floor where the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Isabel stopped Friday.

By yesterday, the water had been pumped out. But sitting cold were four boilers that usually churn out 1.2 million tons per hour of 900-degree steam used to make electricity - something that had never happened since the plant was built in 1949.

Workers at International Steel Group Inc., the Cleveland steelmaker that bought the assets of Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Sparrows Point in May, have been on the job 24 hours a day since the storm struck Thursday. They've been trying to dry out and repair the hulking equipment in the sprawling southeast Baltimore County industrial complex, where steel has been made for more than a century. They hope to get the mill running again today.

"There were workers swimming in the power house," said Ron Belbot, the plant manager.

Belbot, who has worked at Sparrows Point since 1965, explained the damage yesterday to a tour of county and state officials, including Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and David S. Iannucci, executive director of the county's economic development department.

The storm sent a surge down a canal that runs beneath the power plant to cool equipment, he said. About 11:30 p.m. Thursday, pressure from the rising water blew a metal plate a few feet wide off the plant floor. Workers watched helplessly as the water rushed inside, soaking them and the equipment. Pumps were hooked up, but they were no match.

"It was like trying to pump down the bay," said John Lefler, the plant's vice president and general manager.

By 3 a.m. Friday, steelworkers were able to shut the power plant equipment. Since then, workers have been taking apart the motors and other pieces, some that hadn't been pried open since they were installed more than a half-century ago.

New and refurbished parts were sitting on wood pallets yesterday. Officials expected to repair the machines and turn the plant back on today. Because the boilers have never been cold before, no one knows how slowly to reheat them. Some pipes are expected to burst, workers said.

As a backup, the company leased and rushed in three tractor trailer-size diesel fuel generators from Chicago on Monday morning. A series of phone calls Sunday to officials at home secured the permits to allow such big and heavy equipment on Maryland highways.

The leased equipment will also be turned on today. The workers hooking it to the steam system say it's a race to see whether the new generators can come on line faster than the waterlogged ones, though both will be needed for now to make steel.

If all goes as planned, 2,500 workers will be again making steel at full capacity in a week.

While the final bill is not counted, Lefler said the costs are expected to be in the millions of dollars. If the plant has to rely on the leased generators for a full month, the costs could skyrocket: They use 2,000 gallons of fuel an hour.

But, Lefler said, things could have been worse. None of the complex's other equipment was damaged. Customers have been notified that orders will be delayed.

Every worker who has wanted to work has stayed on the job, even though they have made no steel since Thursday, a loss of about 50,000 tons.

"I'm not minimizing the seriousness of what's happened," Lefler said. "But I could not have asked for a more dedicated effort."

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