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The Working Life: Fixing the fiery heart of Big Steel

Maintaining blast furnaces is good work, but you can't get it much anymore

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

By Len Boselovic, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If they were animals, blast furnaces -- towering cauldrons of steel and brick -- would be on the endangered species list.

Harry Frick takes a break from removing debris with a mechanical scraper inside the No. 3 blast furnace at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock last month. Only two blast furnaces are left in the state, both near Pittsburgh. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

There are just 33 of them left in the United States and two in Pennsylvania, both near Pittsburgh. Forty years ago, U.S. Steel had 23 blast furnaces alone in Pennsylvania, and more than 200 were operating across the country.

Back then, maintaining the furnaces, where iron ore is converted to liquid iron, required a hardened corps of boilermakers, brickworkers, steamfitters, electricians and other craftsmen. They'd journey from mill to mill, venturing into the cooled belly of the beast to rip out the scarred brick lining and replace it with new brick capable of withstanding another six years or so of 3,500-degree hell.

"They always worked about 10 hours a day, seven days a week because they always wanted to get them done," recalls Bob Conley, a retired steamfitter from Baldwin. Before he retired in 1983, Conley worked on furnaces in Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Detroit and Birmingham, Ala.

"It wasn't a nice job," he says. "If you're a little shaky, it's not the place for you."

Two more generations of Conleys have worked on furnaces. It's still hard work and good pay, but the jobs are fewer and farther in between. Not only are there fewer furnaces, technology has improved the productivity of the ones still operating and added several years to the lives of their brick linings.

Two U.S. blast furnaces were relined in 1999, one last year and only one this year: the No. 3 furnace at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock, which started operating in 1936. The $62 million project employs 600 in two 10-hour shifts that work six days a week. Work began in early June and will be completed next month when, depending on whether demand for steel has recovered, the furnace may or may not be refired.

When No. 3 was last relined in the early 1980s, it wasn't restarted until 1987. It has run ever since, except for a short outage in 1992. During its 14-year life -- "campaign" in industry parlance -- the furnace produced nearly 14 million tons of iron. Alongside No. 3 is Pennsylvania's other blast furnace, the larger No. 1. It was relined in 1997.

"We won't be looking at another reline in this plant until 2006 or beyond," says Bernie Fedak, U.S. Steel's general manager of engineering. "Blast furnace reliners have learned the meaning of the word diversification."

You'd never know it looking at Lee Burchett's white hard hat. Burchett is the son of an ironworker and fits the bill. Standing more than 6 feet tall with powerful shoulders, he's been doing relines for 36 years. The East Liverpool, Ohio resident is the project superintendent for Kvaerner Songer, the primary contractor on the job. Fedak says it's one of two or three companies left in the United States that does the hard, slugging work.

Burchett's helmet is spattered with decals from mill work the 54-year-old has done since 1988, when he got the hat on a job at Bethlehem Steel. Since then, his stops have included Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Weirton Steel, LTV, several other stops at Bethlehem and the 1997 reline at Edgar Thomson.

"A lot of people who were here in 1997 aren't back now. They've retired or are doing other things," Burchett says.

He's standing on a construction platform at least 100 feet up the outside of the furnace. Below, more than 30 construction trailers that are the base of operations for the project's contractors look like matchboxes. A consistent breeze is fighting a losing battle with 90-degree heat. Hard-hatted workers in filthy fatigues and safety harnesses are working in close quarters on the outside of the furnace. Down below, a few of them are preparing to replace several of the riveted steel plates that are part of the furnace's original shell. Each of the old plates will be recycled at the mill's steelmaking shop, the next stop down the production line.

"It'll probably be a fender on your car when they're done ... or a new dishwasher," Burchett says.

More workers are laboring on scaffolding inside the furnace, removing brick that covers the furnace's 43,000-cubic-foot interior. They work at two or three different levels of the furnace at a time, mindful of those above and below who are sharing the same tight quarters. Every worker is required to wear a safety harness, which straps around his legs and shoulders. At about 6 pounds, the harness seems light, until you work in one for a few hours.

"It does a number on you a little bit, along with your hard hat and your tools," says Ronald F. Conley, II, the steamfitter's night turn general foreman on the Edgar Thomson project.

Conley, the great nephew of Robert Conley, is a fourth-generation member of Steamfitters Local 449. Although the 37-year-old Dormont resident has been a steamfitter since 1987, this is his first blast furnace job.

"There's not as much industrial [work] as there used to be," he says.

The reline at Braddock was 18 months in the making. U.S. Steel had to stockpile steel slabs produced from the furnace's iron in order to supply customers during the outage. Skilled labor had to be lined up, with U.S. Steel's contractors having to bring in some brickworkers and electricians from outside the region. To alleviate labor shortages, the project was timed to coincide with the winding down of work at Pittsburgh's stadiums and before power plants began their fall maintenance. Workers were put through safety classes before the project began.

None of the work will dramatically improve the productivity or efficiency of the furnace. If iron is needed, No. 3 will still make about 3,000 tons a day. Whether the furnace is restarted immediately after the reline is completed depends on steel demand.

Although there are fewer of these aging relics, they are still as reliable a barometer of the industry's health as they were in 1929, when U.S. Steel started building the furnace. Most of the work was done in 1930, but because of the Depression, it was another six years before the furnace, then known as the "D" furnace, was fired up.



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