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Farewell to the city's last Big Steel plant

Monday, July 12, 1999

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wearing his LTV ball cap, Dennis Cagney arrived early at the site of his former employer so he wouldn't miss seeing the smokestacks at the LTV Steel Co. plant in Hazelwood come tumbling down.

  Four stacks and one coal bunker collapse at the LTV Hazelwood site around 9 a.m. yesterday. The P-4 stack, center, took a little longer. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"I have been watching them for 10 years. I might as well watch them fall," said Cagney, 53, of Baldwin Borough, a 35-year employee of the steel industry who spent 10 years as foreman of P-1 and P-2, two of the six Hazelwood smokestacks demolished yesterday.

The city had announced that, between 8 and 10 a.m., the stacks and the P-1 coal bunker on the former LTV site would be demolished, the last remains of a Big Steel plant within the city limits.

At about 9 a.m., a horn sounded and several loud noises were heard as the chargers were set. Two twin sets of stacks, a single one and the coal bunker building collapsed, sending small clouds of smoke into the air to dissipate quickly.

But the tallest smokestack, known as the P-4, didn't come down. KDKA-TV reported that demolition workers said it had been built differently than the other stacks and had more reinforcements.

Workers spent the rest of the morning trying to bring the stack down. At about 12:30 p.m., they announced they would try again later. They rounded up more explosives and finally brought it down at about 3:30 p.m.

The city plans to buy the coke works site and turn it into another riverfront redevelopment project, Mayor Murphy announced last month.

The mayor wants to build commercial and industrial facilities similar to those at the nearby Pittsburgh Technology Center on Second Avenue. He said housing could be built on parts of it, as well as heavy manufacturing facilities.

Meanwhile, the coke works is being demolished and cleaned up by LTV Steel. Last month, Murphy estimated the company could spend $30 million to $50 million to fully remove pollutants and bring the parcel up to environmental standards.

Spectators who gathered yesterday morning at Gloster and Hazelwood avenues, where the stacks could be seen from outside a high fence, remembered the old days in Hazelwood, when the mill was booming and the main street was lined with grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries and banks.

"There were 41 bars from Greenfield Avenue to the Glenwood Bridge," said Pete Knoerl, 64, of Hazelwood, a lifelong resident who worked at the mill for 40 years.

Pointing to the smokestacks, he said steel workers made coke in those furnaces year-round.

"They never stopped. They worked 24 hours a day, every day of the year," he said.

Knoerl said that as environmental laws got tougher, the workers tried to follow the standards to keep pollution low.

"But as the saying goes, you can't make coke without smoke," he said.

Coke, an integral part of the steel-making process, is made by heating coal to 2,400 degrees for up to 24 hours in tall, narrow ovens.

Steel workers who worked at the plant until LTV closed it last year wanted to see Sun Coke of Knoxville, Tenn., build a new state-of-the-art, $350 million coking facility at the site.

That deal crumbled under the criticism of community activists who feared the noise, dirt and pollution that it might bring to the city.

Mary Lewin of Squirrel Hill, spokeswoman for Citizens Helping Our Community, a group that led the drive against the Sun Coke plant, was happy to see the stacks being dismantled.

"This is not where they should put a coke plant. There were too many health risks," said Lewin, who lives about 1 1/4 miles away.

"We felt that it would not complement what is happening with other brownfield sites in the city. It would drive other businesses away."

She said the new plant would have employed about 200 people, which would have been an inefficient use of very valuable riverfront land. When LTV closed the plant last year, it employed 750 people.

Lewin said what is important now is that city officials initiate a process that will involve local residents in overseeing the cleanup of the site and planning for the future.

"The citizens have a lot of good ideas," she said.

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