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New U.S. Steel coke plant promising

| Friday, May 18, 2012, 8:14 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
U.S. Steel CEO John Surma (left) and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald discuss the $500 million coke battery construction project at the Mon Valley Works Clairton Plant on Friday. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

U.S. Steel Corp.'s new C Battery at its Clairton Works, along with synthetic coke-making projects in Indiana and Illinois, will make the steel producer "just about self-sufficient" in supplying coke to fuel its blast furnaces, CEO John P. Surma said on Friday.

"Our issue was we couldn't make enough coke for our blast-furnace needs," Surma said yesterday as he led Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other officials on a visit to the construction site.

The battery will produce more coke and fewer emissions than the older, less efficient batteries that it will replace. The new process could produce more jobs at the plant, Surma said.

Buying coke on the open market from sources in China, Ukraine and elsewhere costs Downtown-based U.S. Steel almost twice as much as making it. The C Battery is expected to begin producing coke late this year, Surma said.

The company is spending $500 million on upgrades to the largest coke-making plant nationwide. U.S. Steel also is using more natural gas and making a synthetic coke at its operations in Gary, Ind., and Granite City, Ill.

The investment also "improves our environmental performance in the bargain. It really hits everything we care about," Surma said.

Work also includes two other projects to cut emissions -- rehabilitating Batteries 1 to 3 at the plant; and building two new low-emissions quench towers to cool the coke with water.

U.S. Steel and other domestic steelmakers have struggled with weak demand and lower-priced imports. U.S. Steel has lost money in 11 of the past 14 financial quarters, and its stock has lost more than half its value in the past year and ended yesterday at $21.56, down 87 cents.

The Clairton plant makes about 4.7 million net tons of coke annually. Coal is burned as high as 2,000 degrees Farenheit for 18 hours. In addition to coke that is shipped out via 160 rail cars daily, the process makes gases and other industrial products.

"Nobody thinks of a coke works as a green plant, but it really is," Fitzgerald said. With the C Battery's advanced technology, the Clairton plant will be "the cleanest coke works in the world," he said.

Paul Thomas, president of United Steelworkers Local 1557, called the C Battery project promising for the 1,300 members at the plant.

"The younger employees can feel confident that they are going to be able to work here," he said.

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