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USS Manager: $1.2B Investment Will Keep Mon Valley Plants Competitive

Thinner, higher-strength steels would be geared toward automotive customers

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 05, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Guests watch a video depicting a new “endless caster” to be built at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock and North Braddock. (Photo courtesy Maury Burgwin, Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce)

Listen: An edited version of this discussion can be heard on our podcast, Two Rivers, 30 Minutes

U.S. Steel’s planned $1.2 billion investment in its three Mon Valley plants will open them to new markets, reduce pollution and energy consumption and keep them competitive well into the 21st century.

That's what Kurt Barshick, general manager of the Mon Valley Works, said Friday during a luncheon held by the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce to mark National Manufacturing Day.

“This is going to make Pittsburgh — and the Mon Valley in particular — the epicenter for automotive steel production,” Barshick told about 125 people during the event, held at the Sunset Room in Elizabeth Twp. “Mills in Detroit will not be able to compete with us ... we plan on keeping that job base in Pittsburgh forever.”

The corporation would like to have the upgrades completed by 2022, Barshick said.

“That’s an incredibly aggressive schedule,” he said. “So we have a whole team working on this project, because again, the faster we get this underway and complete, the faster we can start creating jobs making steel.”

Other speakers at Friday’s event included Patty Horvatich, vice president of business investment for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance; Jeff Nehr, vice president of business investment for Peoples Natural Gas; Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders’ Guild of Western Pennsylvania, a coalition of construction trade unions; state Rep. Austin Davis of McKeesport and Mike Puskaric of Elizabeth Twp.; and Johnna Pro, southwest regional director for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Several of the speakers stressed the need to upgrade the region’s transportation infrastructure — not just highways, but also the lock and dam system on the Monongahela River.

Others also said that many workers in manufacturing careers are nearing retirement age, and the number of young people entering those fields is not enough to replace them.

The graying of the Pittsburgh area’s workforce was a major concern to Shell Oil Co. when it was considering whether or not locate its new chemical factory, the so-called “cracker plant,” in Beaver County, Horvatich said.

“They said we couldn’t build something like that in this part of the United States, and we had to be able to prove them wrong,” she said.

Every manufacturing job in Western Pennsylvania supports another 2.72 jobs in the region, Horvatich said, which makes the need for new, trained workers even more important.

“Most of our manufacturing workers in this region are between the ages of 45 and 54 years old,” she said. “We need to keep that (training) pipeline open so that we can attract another cracker plant or storage facility or whatever.”

Nobers, whose organization represents 16 craft unions that provide free — and in some cases paid — training, said “the shift has to start with parents and teachers” encouraging young people to consider careers in manufacturing, rather than going to straight to college after high school.

“A question I get asked a lot is, ‘how sustainable is this career, am I going to get laid off?’” Nobers said. “What I would say is that for now and into the foreseeable future, the prospects are good.”

Western Pennsylvania needs to be supportive of companies investing in advanced manufacturing technology, Nobers said, and he also criticized environmentalists for, in his opinion, “trying to thwart” the growth of industries.

“You have environmental groups that want cleaner air, but their solution is just ‘close the company down,’” Nobers said. “We have to be supportive of technical careers, and we have to take a stand against, frankly, totally erroneous statements made about industry and about our region.”

Health advocates have noted that according to federal government statistics, the Mon-Yough area has the worst air quality in the nation, and have pointed to U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant and other coal-burning facilities as among the causes.

U.S. Steel was the main sponsor of Friday’s event — its sponsorship included paying for the audience’s meals — and much of the conversation focused on the corporation’s plans to invest in its three Mon Valley manufacturing facilities.

Edgar Thomson is the only one of the three that produces steel from raw material, and by itself, the facility is the most energy-efficient steel mill in the country, Barshick said.

But raw steel slabs from ET must be transported by trains to Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, to be rolled on a production line that was originally built in 1938, he said. Although the finishing line has been updated, it cannot produce newer, thinner and higher-strength steels that customers are demanding, Barshick said.

Kurt Barshick, general manager, U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works. (Photo courtesy Maury Burgwin, Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce)

U.S. Steel has proposed constructing what it’s calling an “endless caster” in Braddock that would go directly from raw material to finished coils of steel.

That will impact the “mill on the hill,” as Irvin Plant was once known. The facility employs about 700 people, Barshick said, and its major customers include appliance manufacturers such as Whirlpool and its subsidiaries, as well as the construction industry.

About 150 workers employed on the “hot mill” at Irvin will be displaced when the Braddock facility comes on line, he said. “When we idle that hot mill, they will have options,” Barshick said. “They’re either going to run (the new Braddock line) and we're going to invest at Irvin as well.”

Steel produced at ET will, in some cases, need additional processing at Irvin before being shipped to customers, he said. The “endless caster” will produce 72-inch steel coils, which will need to be cut to 40-inches and other widths on a new “slitting” line.

“Irvin is in our mix,” Barshick said. “It’s going to be a viable solution. We need it.”

The third leg of U.S. Steel’s planned investment is a new electric power generating facility to be built at Clairton, which will capture some of the gas produced during the process of turning coal into coke, a blast-furnace fuel.

Currently, U.S. Steel transports coke gas via pipelines to Irvin and Edgar Thomson, which is one reason the Braddock facility remains so energy efficient, Barshick said.

The so-called co-generation plant to be constructed at Clairton will allow U.S. Steel to produce electricity from the coke gas as well. The emissions controls at the plant also will be improved, the corporation has said, with expected reductions of particulate matter by 60 percent, sulfur dioxide by 50 percent and nitrogen oxide by 80 percent.

“We've been in business for 100 years,” Barshick said. “These investments are going to keep us in business for another 100 years, and we’re excited about it.”

Maury Burgwin, president of the Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped the discussion would spark future debate about the role of manufacturing in the region’s economy.

“One of the agendas I wanted to have from this luncheon today was to start a conversation,” he said, “to bring people together, create resources, to maximize our opportunties to build industry and business here in the Mon Valley.”

Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published October 05, 2019.

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