U.S. Steel says new coke battery cheaper, cleaner to operate

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 11:46 a.m.

U.S. Steel Corp.'s new C Battery at its huge Clairton coke plant is a major piece of a $500 million improvement project that enhances the company's new ability to make all the coke it needs.

And self-sufficiency is a plus, given the up-and-down prices of purchased coke, industry experts say.

“They have certainly insulated themselves against the worst gyrations” of the coke market, said James Moss, partner in First River Consulting, a North Shore strategy firm focused on steel and other industries.

U.S. Steel, Clairton and government officials celebrated the startup of the technologically and environmentally advanced battery of ovens on Thursday at the nation's largest coke-making plant.

CEO John P. Surma said construction of the C Battery and the first of three low-emission quench towers to cool coke represents the largest investment in the 112-year history of the Clairton plant.

The battery replaces three higher-emissions units, numbered 7 to 9, that were more than 50 years old. Work continues to improve the environmental performance of Batteries 1 to 3 at the plant, and two more quench towers are being built.

The upgrades at Clairton, plus a synthetic coke-making project at the company's Gary Works in Indiana, help ensure U.S. Steel's future, given tougher environmental restrictions that are shutting down coke ovens elsewhere, steel analyst Charles Bradford said.

“You have to have coke,” he said.

Market prices for the raw material have fallen recently because the Chinese dropped a tax on coke exports and coking coal has become cheaper, Bradford said.

Coke is combined with iron ore, limestone and other minerals in a blast furnace to make iron, which is then converted to steel in a giant oxygen-fed furnace.

Allegheny County air quality officials calculate that the region is on track for the first time to meet daily soot limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, with improvements at Clairton playing a big role. EPA set the standards in 1997 and have tightened them since then.

“It's going to be the cleanest coke battery on the planet,” United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard said.

C Battery uses a Uhde Corp. of America gas pressure control system that works much like a vacuum cleaner to contain emissions, and its design has fewer ovens, and thus fewer openings for emissions. Uhde, owned by German steel maker ThyssenKrupp, is based in Bridgeville.

The upgrades at Clairton won't change the plant's coke-making capacity of more than 4.5 million tons a year.

C Battery, which started making coke Nov. 25, will be able to produce about 960,000 tons. Coke from Clairton fuels blast furnaces at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock and other North American operations. And oven gas from the plant is used at Edgar Thomson and at the company's Irvin Works steel finishing plant in West Mifflin.

U.S. Steel, which lost $124 million in 2012, also is using more natural gas in its blast furnaces, cutting quantities of coke needed to make steel in order to save costs.

At its Gary Works, U.S. Steel is working with Carbonyx Inc. of Texas to make a lower-cost coke substitute.

Generally, steel makers “are trying to insulate themselves against the vagaries of rises and falls in raw materials” — iron ore and scrap metal, in addition to coke, said Bruce Steiner, president of the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute.

Many steel companies owned mines and other raw materials-producing facilities at one time, he said, but during the 1980s, businesses were spun off to generate cash.

Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi, who works at the Irvin plant, said improvements at Clairton benefit the local economy, and “I can't say enough about how it makes us breathe a little bit easier.”

Gerard said U.S. Steel's project and Allegheny Technologies Inc.'s ongoing construction of a $1.1 billion hot-rolling facility in Brackenridge are among the largest construction projects in the eastern United States.

ArcelorMittal is spending $50 million to upgrade its idled, 1940s-era coke plant in Monessen. Production is to resume there in May 2014.

Surma said Downtown-based U.S. Steel realized in 2007 that a “course correction” was needed to reach environmental and business goals. Allegheny County health officials reached a consent decree with the company that year on accelerating pollution-reducing projects.

U.S. Steel announced it would spend more than $1 billion to build two new batteries, then scaled back the project when steel demand slumped during the recession.

As part of the celebration, Surma and others tossed ceremonial silver dollars into a fresh batch of coke made from the C Battery. The new quench tower then cooled the coke.

”We can't locate the exact origin of this historic Clairton tradition,” Surma said, but it's long been part of the process of commissioning new batteries.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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