Beth Steel set today to relight furnace

10 weeks, millions spent to modernize `L' blast furnace

Steel

August 17, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

After a 10-week maintenance shutdown, Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point blast furnace is set to begin firing up today as the flip of a switch sends super hot compressed air into the 150-foot-tall structure.

Workers began replacing the bricks that line the "L" blast furnace, which pumps out molten iron that supplies the rest of the plant, June 8 and were originally scheduled to finish Aug. 1. In late July as it released second-quarter earnings -- which showed a $29.7 million loss on revenue of $985 million -- the company said the repairs would take longer than expected.

"We had set a very aggressive schedule for doing something of this size," spokesman Ted Baldwin said yesterday. "We found some other things that needed to be done and some things took longer than anticipated, but it's done now."

The project cost more than the $100 million the company had predicted, Baldwin said, but he declined to disclose the actual cost. In addition to relining the blast furnace, the company also completed an update on its basic oxygen furnace, which turns the molten iron from the blast furnace into steel. That project was expected to cost $70 million and Baldwin said he wasn't sure if it came in on target.

Tom Abrams, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, said the blast furnace repairs likely cost Bethlehem $1 million for every day it was shut down but that the tardiness of the repairs shouldn't cause concern.

"Little things like this you can't be too annoyed about," Abrams said. "It's not so crazy to expect that when you get inside and are taking bricks out with a jackhammer you say, `If we just replaced this other panel, we will not have to do it again for three more years.' I think given the situation it's better to keep it down now and get an extended life on the furnace."

The relined blast furnace, one of seven modernization projects at Sparrows Point expected to cost a total of $615 million, should last 12 to 15 years before it needs another major overhaul. Baldwin said it was last relined in 1990 and was down then for 103 days. After the blast furnace is ignited this morning, he said, it should be another two to three days before it is running at its full processing capacity of 9,000 tons of iron per day.

Shares of Bethlehem closed up 43.75 cents yesterday at $8.1875.

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