By Jeff Clark/The Columubus Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — U.S. steel mills have had a long-standing reputation of being unionized, grim manufacturing plants polluting the skyline of the blight-filled Rust Belt.
Lowndes County’s Severstal does not seem to fit the stereotypical steel mill mold, however.
With a work force of almost 700 employees and more than 50 contract workers, the vibe among its executives and employees is anything but morose. But the increasing rise of cheaply made imported steel does have some employees concerned.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, $225.3 billion in steel was imported in July and $183.3 billion was exported, creating a steel trade deficit of $42 billion.
William D. Wednieski, Severstal’s director of corporate taxation and government programs, said the biggest concern with imported steel is with China and other countries tries that do not regulate environmental quality and protection.
“China would argue that in the 1800s, the U.S. was unregulated,” Wednieski said. “China feels this is its industrial age. China doesn’t have an Environmental Protection Agency and they do not regulate emissions.
“A lot of the steel mills in China are state-owned enterprises. This means that the Chinese government owns some of the steel mills. They are making cheap, unregulated steel and dumping it in the U.S. The Department of Commerce is trying to create an antidumping environment which would mean high charges to import the Chinese steel.”
According to a report prepared Sept. 25 by Thomas J. Gibson and Kevin M. Dempsey for the American Iron and Steel Institute, steel imported from China has increased almost 30 percent since 2011. As the U.S. and global economies continue to slow, the risk factors for imported steel will increase.
Risk factors include an overcapacity of steel, with China alone having more the 200 million metric tons. The report claims China’s demand for steel is slowing but Chinese steel production in 2012 is on pace to set a record and prices for steel are declining. The Chinese government is also looking at tax rebates for the exports of steel.
Wednieski said the steel made at Severstal, which is made from recycled scrap metal, is used in appliances, sheet metal, construction beams and other daily used products.
“Steel consumption in the U.S. is the highest in the world,” said Wednieski. “When I say consumption, I’m talking about the food cans you buy, vehicles, lawnmowers — things you don’t think about.”
Severstal creates about 2 million to 2.2 million tons of steel a year.
“We have the capacity to make a lot more if the economy was better,” Wednieski said.
The stagnant economy is another area of concern for employees of the Columbus Severstal plant. Wednieski said the average worker at Severstal makes approximately $50,000 a year.
“This is a very incentive-driven operation,” Wednieski said. “It is a nonunion plant and the people in Columbus make more than at other steel mills across the country.
“The (Golden Triangle Industrial Park) is one of the best industrial sites in the U.S. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the election. There hasn’t been many capital investments in other parts of the country like there has been here (in Lowndes County).
“The work force here also has a lot to do with it. When you launch a new mill, you bring in people from other steel plants. But we didn’t do a lot of that. We wanted to hire from the area. We wanted an untainted work force that had a down-home work ethic.”
Severstal is a second career for many of its employees, some of whom came from the Nissan Plant in Canton, were laid off when the Sara Lee Plant closed in West Point and some are even former farmers and school teachers. Regardless of their employment backgrounds, the Severstal employees have one common goal — to hold on to their jobs.
“We want an opportunity to make a good living and have health care and take care of our families,” said former teacher Taylor Purtell, who is the current supervisor of galvanized tubing. “We want to know what’s next for the area — what is the next step?”