Workers stuck in waiting game

MINGO JUNCTION – Steelworkers and residents are anxious to learn the destiny of the silent RG Steel mill in Mingo Junction, which contains the $115 million electric arc furnace installed when it wore the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel badge.

Just up the road, it seems demolition of the former Steubenville plant is ongoing, as workers viewed from Ohio Route 7 this week could be seen pulling down part of the south side of the facility.

“Right now, we are just waiting to see like everyone else,” said Ernie Gambellin, the most recent president of United Steelworkers Local 1190, which represents union employees and retirees from both plants. Because the mills have been shut down since 2009, Gambellin said the United Steelworkers district headquarters has taken over the leadership duties, thus relieving him of his official position.

Buffalo, N.Y.-based Frontier Industrial purchased the entire Mingo facility – including its electric arc furnace – for $20 million in the wake of RG’s bankruptcy and liquidation last year.

Craig Slater, general counsel and vice president for Frontier, said in December his company was still working to find investors to help restart the mill.

He said this would probably take at least $80 million and about six months of work.

“We are still doing everything we can to get a restart,” Slater said this week. “We are having productive discussions. Everyone has been helpful, from the local level and the state level, down there.”

“We feel kind of like a duck. Our feet are moving awfully fast under the water, but you can’t see anything moving on the surface,” he explained of his company’s inconspicuous efforts.

Slater said if anyone has plans to operate the mill again, a critical component of the business strategy will need to be finding an economical source of energy. He said he engaged in discussions with American Electric Power, as well as the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, to possibly work out a deal for reduced power rates.

“We have not filed anything yet, but it is a possibility,” Slater said of asking for a break on electricity bills. “We hope to have something decided within the next 90 days, but we’ll just have to see.”

Although Frontier’s website states that it specializes in “demolition” and “industrial gutting,” Slater said his crews have removed some “stuff” from the Mingo mill, but nothing vital to the steelmaking process.

“I have not heard of anyone moving any equipment out of the plant. I think he is just waiting to see if someone can operate it,” Gambellin said of Slater.

After nearly four years of inactivity at Mingo, Gambellin said some displaced workers have retired, while others have gone to college or left the area in search of new careers. He said there are about 500 people in place now who are still looking to return to work.

While the Mingo plant sits idle as it has since 2009, portions of the large RG Steel plant in Sparrows Point, Md., are now about to be demolished and sold for parts.

Wheeling-based Herman Strauss Inc. purchased the shuttered Steubenville facility for about $15 million last summer, including $4.3 million for the 103 acres of land and $10.7 million for the metal.

“It is just so much different now,” said an Upper Ohio Valley native who stopped along the road to view the work on the south side of the Steubenville plant.

“I can remember when the smoke was so thick you could barely see the place. I guess everything changes, though,” he added.