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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf talks to local and state officials during a tour of the McKeesport electric-resistance weld pipe mill recently purchased by Dura-Bond. From left, Jason Norris, president of Dura-Bond Industries (with back to camera); Wolf; McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko; state Sen. Jim Brewster; and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. (Submitted photo courtesy City of McKeesport.)
Editor's Note: This story was written from a recording of the tour.
The new owner of McKeesport's last remaining pipe mill last week told Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf that "the challenge is enormous" but Dura-Bond is committed to turning the facility around.
"We have a family ethic and we're here to create jobs and put people to work and, in turn, take care of the business, and hopefully the business will take care of us," said Jason Norris, president of Dura-Bond Industries Inc., who gave a tour on Friday to Wolf and other local and state officials.
A family owned, Westmoreland County-based company, Dura-Bond took ownership of the former U.S. Steel electric-resistance weld mill in December. The mill is not running yet but Dura-Bond is making the necessary repairs to put it back into operation, Norris said.
(Photo courtesy Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)
Wolf said he appreciates Dura-Bond's confidence and is himself confident that the company, which also operates pipe-coating facilities in Liberty Borough and Duquesne, as well as a pipe mill in Steelton, near Harrisburg, will be successful in McKeesport.
"When you have a fair playing field, no one can beat American workers and American companies," Wolf said. "We can compete anywhere."
Wolf was joined on the tour by McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko, state Sen. Jim Brewster of McKeesport and state Rep. Eric Nelson of Westmoreland County, as well as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Built in the early 1960s, the former pipe plant is the only remaining piece of the U.S. Steel National Plant, or "National Tube," that once employed more than 7,000 people, and which stretched along the city's Monongahela River waterfront from the mouth of the Youghiogheny to underneath the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge.
Closed in 1987, the ERW mill was re-opened by Camp-Hill Corp. for more than 20 years before U.S. Steel resumed operation of the facility in 2011 and renamed it "McKeesport Tubular Operations."
Citing unfair foreign competition and a slowdown in the natural gas industry, U.S. Steel idled the McKeesport plant in 2014, laying off more than 200 workers.
Wolf, whose family owns a building supply company, noted that some large manufacturers that had "off-shored" their work to countries in the Pacific Rim are bringing that work back to the United States.
"This re-shoring that's taking place is not taking place because of regulations -- it's taking place because we can actually do things better," he said. "We're rediscovering that we can make these things here rather than transporting (them) across the Pacific Ocean or wherever."
Dura-Bond previously rescued the Steelton mill when its then-owner, the former Bethlehem Steel Corp., was about to close the plant and sell the equipment overseas, Norris said.
"It was literally going to China," he said. "Now, we're proud to say that mill is once again the premiere large-diameter pipe mill in the country. We're extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish, and we give all of the credit to our people, and to the dedication of our employees, who saw the structure of the mill is robust."
The Steelton plant is currently running two shifts while producing pipe for a 600-mile-long pipeline to the Carolinas, where coal-fired power plants are being converted to run on natural gas, Norris said.
"When I go to Steelton and drive up Front Street and I see all of those cars in the parking lot, that's what gives us satisfaction," he said. "I want to see these parking lots in McKeesport full, too. That's our goal."
Dura-Bond's purchase of the McKeesport mill was in part self-protection, Norris said. The company's Liberty Borough and Duquesne facilities were major customers of the large-diameter steel pipes made in McKeesport.
"Without being near a producer, our days were numbered as a going concern," he said. U.S. Steel also was motivated to sell the McKeesport ERW mill to someone who would re-open it, Norris said, because it consumes steel made at its Mon Valley Works plants.
"This is a big venture for us, although not one foreign to us, because we've done this before," he said.
Still, Norris added, the McKeesport plant is going to need significant updates in the near future in order to remain competitive.
"The challenge here is enormous, no question about it," he said. But Dura-Bond is hiring back managers and workers who had been at the plant since its Camp-Hill days, Norris said.
"Pretty much the entire crew that worked here wants to come back to work," he said, besides which, "without even advertising for positions here we had over 700 applications."
"With any facility we know that our people make the most difference," said Norris, the third generation of his family to work for Dura-Bond. "We're going to do it -- we're going to turn this mill around."
(Tube City Almanac photo)
Dura-Bond's decision to re-open the plant will have an impact beyond the 200 people directly employed at the ERW mill, Wolf said.
"Look at the aggregate effect," the governor said. "There are going to be jobs all over Pennsylvania --- especially Western Pennsylvania --- that spin off from here. How many restaurant jobs? How many industrial supply jobs?
"Add that to all of the other jobs that are being created to support the gas industry, and it's a big deal," Wolf said. "It's Americans and Pennsylvanians making a product that's really important for the future of Pennsylvania's economy --- pipelines. And it's a really big deal for this area, bringing back a plant that was the heart and soul of this area."
Norris agreed, adding that "it's not about 200 jobs that will be here in McKeesport ... it's about all of the other businesses that support this operation --- the engineering companies, the machine shops, the hydraulic oil suppliers, the people who make hoses and electric motors and controls --- that's how the economy works.
Besides the challenge of re-opening and modernizing an older mill, Norris said, Dura-Bond is actively involved in lobbying efforts to prevent steel pipe made overseas from being dumped on the U.S. market below cost.
He joked that with ownership of the McKeesport mill, he does feel at times like "the dog that chased the car and caught it."
"But when you see that U.S. flag on the front, and the Pennsylvania flag, and when I look around McKeesport and see pictures of what this town used to be like, it makes me proud that we're doing our part," Norris said.
Editor's note: No one from Tube City Almanac was present for the tour. A recording of the tour was provided, on request, to Tube City Almanac by the office of McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko. This story was written by Executive Director Jason Togyer from that recording.
Originally published May 31, 2017.