By BRENDA J. LINERT
WARREN - Workers last week began the timely and expensive process of protecting infrastructure inside the former RG Steel Mill against damage from frozen pipes as winter approaches.
The process, which involves adding an anti-freeze-type chemical to the plant's pipes, is necessary if there is any hope of reopening the plant once an operator is located.
Owners have said they plan to find an operator and eventually reopen the idled mill, now under the name BDM Warren Steel Holdings LLC. The plant has been shut down since May after the prior owner filed for bankruptcy protection.
Word of the winterization process came Thursday, one day after property deeds for nearly 1,400 acres in Warren were transferred officially from RG Steel Warren LLC to BDM Warren Steel Holdings, the Aliquippa, Pa., company that purchased the mill out of bankruptcy. The land value is listed at a total of about $4 million. The total purchase price for the business was listed at about $16 million in bankruptcy court.
United Steelworkers Local 1375 president Darryl Parker said the winterization work began about a week ago and should take six to eight weeks to complete. While the process is costly, it is much less expensive than attempting to repair damaged pipes, he said.
A message left seeking comment from Charles J. Betters, one of three partners that bought the mill, was not immediately returned Thursday.
He previously has said he is not a steel operator and planned to look for someone with the knowledge to operate the plant, which he said he believes can be profitable.
According to the purchase agreement, Betters cannot sell the plant for at least nine months. He said it is too early to tell if he would remain as partial owner or sell it outright to a new operator after that time.
Betters has been seeking finances from the state and federal government to help fund the winterization process that some have estimated would cost at least $1 million. The state has been seeking guarantees that Betters and his partners would try in earnest to reopen the mill.
Parker said the United Steelworkers has provided color-coded maps of the Pine Avenue plant to U.S. Rep. Timothy J. Ryan's office to help them understand what is inside the plant and what would be needed to get it operational.
Laura Jones of JobsOhio said last week that talks are ongoing to help with funding the project, but declined to release further details.
''The state of Ohio understands the importance of the Warren facility to the area,'' Jones said.
Beating the cold weather for winterizing isn't the only concern as the clock ticks. New York steel analyst Charles Bradford said that the longer the mill is closed, the more difficult it will be to retain customers.
''It's been closed long enough now that you wonder what is happening with its customers,'' he said.
Bradford noted the future may not be particularly rosy, largely because the steel market is flooded with the industry running at less than 70 percent operating rate. Most steel producers, he said, are predicting that 2013 will be no better.
''They increased the supply of steel where there was no increased demand," Bradford said. ''But maybe somebody is optimistic about the economy.''
Previously, Betters said he was hoping the sluggish economy will pick up following the presidential election and help them to find an operator. He said there is a customer list that can be used in a restart.
In the meantime, the 1,000 laid-off employees are working to find ways to make ends meet.
Parker said many have taken jobs out of the area, driving east into Pennsylvania, south to Poland and west to Canton, many for other manufacturing work. Despite the drive, workers have found ''decent work,'' Parker said.
Others, he said, have decided to go back to school, and about 150 have officially retired.