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Processors want PennDOT to change restrictions on use of slag for roads

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 11:56 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Matt Dean displays samples of steel slag (left,) and blast furnace slag at a Beaver Valley Slag mining site in Beaver County, Thursday, October 10, 2013. Dean is a sales manager with the company, and performs other duties as needed.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Tom Shimrack uses a front-loader to fill a truck with blast furnace slag from the surplus piles at a Beaver Valley Slag mining site in Beaver County, Thursday, October 10, 2013. The slag is produced from decades old piles from the former J&L Works.

Millions of tons of slag — a steelmaking byproduct — are available cheaply and safely for road and construction projects nationwide, but in Western Pennsylvania use of the material is limited, putting state officials at odds with producers.

Slag processors and even U.S. Steel Corp. are unhappy with a 5-year-old PennDOT directive that imposed strict limits on the amount of water that slag used for road construction here can absorb. Companies say the directive has reduced sales by up to 30 percent and caused layoffs.

PennDOT began limiting the use of slag in three districts in Western Pennsylvania because of problems in 2009 on Interstates 70 and 79 in Washington County that the state says required $13 million in repairs.

“PennDOT has and continues to work with the Steel Alliance and slag manufacturers ... but we must take steps to ensure the success of road projects,” said Rich Kirkpatrick, an agency spokesman in Harrisburg.

The slag used in road construction projects that had to be repaired absorbed too much water, causing pavement to settle as much as 4 inches, Kirkpatrick said. The road surface cracked, joints failed, and congealed slag blocked drainage outlets.

The National Slag Association, which represents 200 slag-related companies, and the Pennsylvania Steel Alliance say the state never proved that slag caused the problems. Their efforts to get PennDOT to modify the restrictions have “been a difficult conversation,” said Slag Association spokesman Rich Lehman.

The issue has gotten the attention of state lawmakers. The House last week approved a bill urging PennDOT to reconsider and to set up rules to fairly evaluate the use of slag and other materials, mainly limestone. Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, a former U.S. Steel employee, sponsored the legislation.

“I'm not trying to force PennDOT to use slag, just that they can't exclude it,” Evankovich said. “They cannot say that a contractor can't use slag.”

His bill passed in a 182-13 vote. A Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, is pending before the Transportation Committee.

PennDOT's analysis concluded that slag broke up and congealed, allowing water to pond, exacerbating the freeze-thaw cycle.

“With the water trapped underneath, it's like bending a spoon back and forth until it breaks,” Kirkpatrick said.

Evankovich said the agency should establish a more uniform standard for when slag can or cannot be used, publish it as policy and include it in its highway construction manual.

“Slag has been used for 100 years to create the base for roads. It is abundant in Pennsylvania and environmentally sound and saves money” compared with alternatives, Evankovich said.

Chris Masciantonio, general manager of government affairs at U.S. Steel, said the company's Mon Valley blast furnaces produce about 700,000 tons of slag each year, and the alternative to its use in construction is putting it in a landfill.

“Our argument is that slag is a preferred material because it's cheaper, and from an environmental approach it's made sense for a long time,” Masciantonio said. “I'm confident we'll resolve this.”

Spokesmen for two Western Pennsylvania companies that supply limestone, sand and gravel — Allegheny Mineral Corp. in Kittanning and Amerikohl Mining Inc. in Stahlstown — said they do not oppose the bill if it doesn't circumvent PennDOT's testing process and make an unfair advantage for a producer.

PennDOT's directive for slag applies only in Districts 9, 11 and 12, which cover most of Western Pennsylvania. The directive initially was part of a March 2008 bid award. It is not an “outright ban” but imposes a 3.5 percent moisture absorption limit — essentially the amount of water slag or limestone contains after its surface has been dried, Kirkpatrick said.

Slag and other aggregates are used in road construction as a sub base, upon which concrete is applied to make the road surface. Slag can be used to fill embankments, mixed with asphalt for some surface treatments, and mixed with sand in anti-skid materials.

Another major use is track ballast for the railroads.

About 25 million tons of slag is produced per year in blast furnaces, basic oxygen furnaces and electric arc furnaces in more than 20 states, Lehman said.

PennDOT approved 13 suppliers of slag and tests stockpiles, which can be as large as 90,000 tons. The agency might test material at job sites.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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