Silence on blast furnace razing disheartening

It was a brisk November day in 2012 when I stood outside the grimy, soot-covered monster of a blast furnace along Austintown Warren Road.

As then-business editor for this newspaper, I was doing a story about what we all suspected was a bleak future for the mill, but we were trying to remain optimistic. Longtime Tribune Chronicle photographer Mike Semple and I were invited inside to chronicle work intended to preserve the idled mill and the Mahoning Valley’s last remaining blast furnace against the onset of the harsh northeast Ohio winter.

The mill had last been operated in May 2012 by RG Steel, the nation’s fourth-largest steel producer at the time. The company had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, saying cost-cutting and other defensive measures could not overcome weak industry conditions and the lack of a sustained economic recovery. When it shut down, some 1,200 workers lost their jobs. The property was purchased out of bankruptcy that summer by BDM Warren Steel Holdings, which searched for an owner to resume operations.

I also recall perspiring on a sweltering summer afternoon the same year, as I stood in the beating sun outside the mill’s corporate offices on Pine Avenue in Warren, surrounded by dozens of displaced steelworkers who gathered to hear from BDM officials about their plans for this plant that had helped shape Warren into what it once was.

Charles J. Betters of C.J. Betters Enterprises, who headed up the new ownership team, stepped outside that hot summer day and told the crowd he would not operate the mill himself because his background was not in manufacturing. But he said he would try to market the facility, even investing an estimated $1 million to protect the giant pipes from the harsh 2012-13 winter.

Betters’ background was in real estate, demolition and selling steel industry waste used in highway and construction projects. I admit, that worried me about the mill’s future. But Betters made good on his promise to winterize and to seek a buyer. Hailing from Aliquippa, a blue collar western Pennsylvania town, Betters once told me he knew firsthand what the loss of a mill could do to a community.

In the following months, I spoke to marketers trying to sell the mill and interviewed steel industry experts and labor historians. The more I learned, the more my optimism waned. I knew how cost prohibitive it would be to restart the blast furnace. Cost estimates to reline the furnace reached $100 million.

In spring 2013, mill equipment and tools were sold at auction. By fall 2013, demolition of the mill’s “cold side” southwest of Pine Avenue began. Thousands of square feet of buildings there have been leveled, creating a vast brownfield. Industrial cleanup will be long and costly.

And then last week, the blast furnace was razed.

Sadly, there was no pomp and circumstance for the towering monstrosity that was visible for miles and that had been churning out molten steel since 1912. The view from my newsroom’s second-floor windows that just last week included the giant blast furnace now seems barren.

We’ve been reporting for months the blast furnace would be razed, still workers and residents expressed disappointment at the secrecy of the moment. It was toppled with no notification to reporters or neighbors on a Sunday afternoon when the community instead was saying goodbye to a local police officer killed in the line of duty.

I can’t say whether that was the intent, but it is disappointing for all of us who have worked and lived in the shadows of the mill for decades. This was a significant piece of history.

Its demolition was inevitable, but still, all of us would have liked to have said goodbye.

A neighbor captured last week’s demolition on video. To see it, go to www.tribtoday.com, click News and then multimedia.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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