Beth Steel facility shut after plant floods

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The Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point mill has not made any steel since Hurricane Isabel sent an unprecedented 10-foot storm surge into its power plant last week - possibly the longest unplanned outage in the plant's history.

The repairs and lost productively could cost millions of dollars once everything is counted and the mill is ramped back up, beginning tonight, according to International Steel Group of Cleveland, which bought Beth Steel's assets in May.

Generators that the company trucked in from Chicago arrived yesterday and will be used until the motors in the steam-generating power plant can be repaired.

Workers said the canal used to bring in river water to cool equipment served as a conduit for the floodwaters to pour into the plant. It was built more than 80 years ago and is about four feet above mean high tide.

"No one can remember ever having that much water, not even close, and we had to shut down early Friday morning," said John D. Lefler, vice president and general manager for the local mill.

Lefler said workers are pulling out motors and drying and cleaning them. He expected to get them back up and running in another week at full capacity, but he said undiscovered damage could delay full production.

The temporary generators were leased for a month as a precaution but require diesel fuel, which could add to the final tally of costs, he said.

The mill was able to continue some finishing work on stockpiled steel for its customers, and International Steel also is filling orders from eight other mills around the country, he said.

Beth Steel was the nation's third-largest steel maker but was in bankruptcy when International Steel bought its assets and became the No. 1 maker of raw steel, with annual shipping capacity of 16 million tons.

The Sparrows Point mill produces about 2.4 million tons annually, and Lefler said up to 50,000 tons of production could be lost as a result of the flooding.

Steel production in Sparrows Point is halted once a year for a few days for maintenance, but this is the first outage some workers and managers could recall lasting so long: 5 1/2 days.

"Never," said Ed Gorman, who worked finishing steel products at Sparrows Point for nearly 38 years and retired in 1987. "They never shut down because they always had backup. This is the first time it's ever flooded."

Mark Reutter, business and law editor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Sparrows Point: Making Steel: The Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might, said the last unplanned shutdown of several days might have been during a 1959 strike. Although some of the aging equipment could make the mill vulnerable, he said, the level of flooding was unforeseen.

"It's a dark irony that the harbor rose up and slapped the mill that has been using and maybe abusing it for 100 years," he said.

About 3,500 people work at the mill, and those not needed to do repair work have been given other work there over the weekend to keep them on the payroll, the local steelworkers union reported.

John Hough, vice president of the union, said union workers and contractors had been working around the clock to hook up temporary power and fix the motors in the power plant. The nine or 10 motors are large and aging and difficult to repair, he said.

The workers had prepared other equipment for a potential power outage and none was harmed, he and Lefler said.

"We can't process steel with no power," Hough said. "But no one was laid off. The company allowed people to do other tasks like general maintenance and housekeeping."

That was a relief to Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who planned to tour the mill today.

He said many of the workers live near Beth Steel and also suffered damage to their homes during the storm. Beth Steel lent the county some front-end loaders and operators to rescue residents, workers or not, during the storm, he said.

"The company is one of our largest employers, and those jobs are critical," he said. "I hope [the backup generators] work because a lot of those folks live on the east side of the county and would get a double whammy.

"Many people have lived there for 40 to 50 years and been through four, maybe five hurricanes and never experienced anything like this."

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