By BRENDA J. LINERT
Just a few ironworkers remained inside the grimy catacomb-like passageway near the blast furnace now eerily silent. With huge pipe wrenches, they worked to open massive valves, draining any remaining water from the immense pipes to keep them from freezing as winter approaches.
Dave Hogan, director of engineering and environmental at BDM, stands outside the idled blast furnace.
The work going on last week inside the former RG Steel Mill on Warren's south side was described by a member of the mill's management team as "the final stretch."
Al Greenawalt, superintendent of operations support, was referring to the winterization process under way for more than six weeks. But he was hoping the statement didn't unwittingly also apply to the future of the 100-year-old mill.
"It's amazing when it's running," said Dave Hogan, the mill's director of engineering and environmental. "Especially the caster. You just look around and think, 'Wow, who thought of this?'"
But the mill hasn't run since May, when former owner RG Steel, the nation's fourth-largest steel producer, 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.
RG Steel had purchased the Warren mill as well as plants formerly operated by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and Bethlehem Steel's former Sparrows Point plant in Baltimore just a year ago from OAO Severstal for $1.2 billion.
Now the mill has changed hands again for at least the ninth time since it opened in 1912 as Trumbull Steel Co., and once again the plant's future remains blurred. The partners, now officially known as BDM Warren Steel Holdings LLC, who purchased the mill out of bankruptcy say the mill needs upgrades and they are seeking financial help from the state of Ohio.
"It's a good mill. There's constant new technology," Hogan said. "It needs some work on the inside of the furnace, on the hearth walls and stove work. All mills have to have upgrades."
Charles J. Betters of C.J. Betters Enterprises, who is heading up the group that purchased the mill for $17 million in August with the condition that he would attempt to get the mill restarted and would not demolish it for at least nine months, has said they are looking for an operator to run the mill because their background is not in steel production. Betters' interests, for example, lie in real estate, demolition and selling steel industry waste used in highway and construction projects.
That background didn't seem of concern last week as members of the mill's managers hiked through the plant.
"All the way through, we all talked about doing it (winterization). He's always been committed from the beginning to protect the place,'' Hogan said of Betters. Hogan has worked at the plant for 23 years.
So far, there has been little progress in Betters' attempts to secure funding through JobsOhio, Gov. John Kasich's economic development arm.
As a result, for now at least, Betters is funding the winterization process, estimated at about $1 million, out of pocket, along with ongoing utility costs that have amounted to tens of thousands of dollars even without the mill in operation.
"I will probably circle back around the first week of December and touch base with all the people at JobsOhio," Betters said last week. He is hoping talks will be more successful now that the election has wrapped up.
Betters has said he understands state funding processes because he has been successful at gaining financial help on other projects in his home state of Pennsylvania.
A piece of property purchased by Betters in 1993 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aliquippa which formerly held a now-demolished LTV Steel plant, had been on the short list as a possible location for a Shell ethane processing plant, or cracker plant, before Shell announced in March the preferred site would be a parcel near Betters' land.
Since then, though, Betters has been working to improve his Aliquippa parcel with a $5 million new dock on the Ohio River that included $2.5 million in state assistance. The dock will give companies easy access to barge transport along the river there.
Back in Warren, the winterization process is expected to wrap up within a week. The process was necessary to protect the infrastructure against damage from frozen pipes as winter approaches if there is any hope of ever restarting the plant.
The last of several tankers carrying about 8,000 gallons of antifreeze was emptied and pulled out of the plant in recent weeks. "We drained all the water out, blew it out and put an antifreeze solution in with a corrosion inhibitor, then pumped it back out," Hogan explained.
"There's a lot of water that's still laying in these areas, and we are pumping them out. Where we don't have an abundance of antifreeze, we are just draining the water out."
The process should guarantee the mill will be protected against the elements for up to -10 degrees.
When asked how they knew where to begin, Hogan shrugged. "We've got a lot of people here with a lot of experience. We know what's the main components. Some of the little stuff we will probably miss, but it's nothing major."
Hogan noted that workers are using the same winterization process that was used the last time the mill was shut down in 2008. That idle lasted about 15 months, and the mill was able to be restarted with "minimal issues," he said.
Work has been completed on the caster, the ladle metallurgy facility, or LMF, and the basic oxygen furnace, or BOF. Work is now finishing up in the area of the blast furnace.
It's all being done in-house with about 20 or so former RG Steel employees put on the payroll. Hogan said management will do their best to keep the workers busy rather than laying them off when the work wraps up. He noted workers still remain around the clock at the waste water treatment plant, as does security to keep the mill secure.
"There's a lot of people here with a lot of history and knowledge," Hogan said. "The guys have been doing a great job. They are all looking for their futures."