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Pa. steel revival: Energy boom, rail hopes, Trump order (Updated)

"It has been a brutal 20 years," but pipe and rail have revived, says Barends

(Updated and corrected 3/1) "It has been a brutal 20 years" for eastern Pennsylvania steelmakers, and now the industry's growing again, says Wayne-based engineer James L. Barends, who built projects for Alcoa, DuPont, Merck and several of the region's current and former steel plants, and headed an investment group that made a final effort to save the late Phoenix Steel Co. pipe mill on the Schuylkill in the 1990s.

"It is wonderful to see something go right for industry," Barends told me, noting government approvals of East Coast and Midwest pipeline projects -- and President Trump's order that they use American pipe -- means jobs for Pennsylvania manufacturers like Jason Norris' family-owned Dura-Bond, which my colleague Andrew Maykuth recently profiled here. See also here.

Steelton "is the same pipe mill that provided the pipe for the Trans Alaska pipeline and hundreds of others projects over four decades," he added. "They are one of the biggest U-and-O-ing pipe mills in the world, and they have seen a steady rise in work" as gas and oil exploration returned to Pennsylvania. To make steel pipe, steel plate is pressed into a U shape, then sealed into an O.

The Steelton pipe mill "was idle, but sound and needed upgrades, when Dura-Bond took it over (2003).  Dura-Bond modernized the facility and reopened it. They recently announced they are hiring 150 people for a second shift and will supply the line pipe for the Atlantic (Coast) pipeline," Dominion Transmission's planned project. (Williams Cos.' separate Atlantic Sunrise pipeline was made and coated in Turkey. In an earlier version of this item, I confused the two Atlantics.)

Dura-Bond has also coated pipe made at other U.S. mills for Sunoco Logistics' Mariner pipelines. My colleague Andrew Maykuth points out that Mariner East 1 pipe was built at the former US Steel McKeesport works -- the one Dura-Bond bought last month --while Mariner 2 was produced at mills in Indiana and Louisiana.

Barends notes that Dura-Bond upgraded while so many other American factory owners were "sending weak American manufacturing plants to China."

The pipe mill at Steelton buys its plate from ArcelorMittal, not from the Philadelphia area's Coatesville or Conshohocken plate mills, but from the former Bethlehem Steel flagship plant in Burns Harbor, Indiana, Dura-Bond President Jason Norris tells me. 

Earlier this year, Dura-Bond took over the shuttered former U.S. Steel National Tube Works in McKeesport, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

"Another plant that is directly benefiting from the pipelines is the Lehigh Heavy Forge operation in Bethlehem, the largest forging operation left in the world," says Barends.

"The former Bethlehem Steel facility forges components like compressor shafts that are used in the systems used to pump natural gas and oil.  They also forge pipeline sized valve bodies. They are a subsidiary of Whemco," a Pittsburgh-based company that also has a castings plant near Pittsburgh, a melting plant in Latrobe, a forge in Erie, and plants in Ohio. "They are hiring to expand operations," Barends added. "That means jobs, profits and taxes."

Coatesville and Conshohocken don't make "suitable" plates for Dura-Bond's pipe mil, Norris noted.

"Mittal needs to make long-term decisions about Coatesville.  Its melt shop is old. Modernization has to happen to stay viable.  They also need more capacity, according to Barends.

He says former owner Bethlehem Steel long ago considered, then discarded, plans to "add a melt shop in Conshohocken, and instead supplied slabs from Sparrow Point (Baltimore, Md.) which is now closed.  "A new melt shop would cost close to $350 million." It would keep the Conshohocken competitive for a long time to come. "A big factor, though, is the  cost of electricity in PECO turf," Barends added.

In the 1980s Phoenix Steel ran the Claymont mill along with its flagship Phoenixville works. "Phoenix made a huge mistake buying it out of bankruptcy.    They should have built a modern electric arc shop in Phoenixville, but the idle Claymont plant was there and they bought it cheap. It killed Phoenix Steel."

Too bad; "the old Phoenix Steel plant in Phoenixville was a pipe mill that would have benefited from the entire drilling and pipeline boom" if it had been able to upgrade its pipe to American Petroleum Institute standards.

Midvale Steel and the other main Philadelphia-based specialty steel producers are long gone. Carpenter Steel in Reading remains a busy, publicly-traded supplier.