Efficient, agile, smart, Seattle’s steel mill keeps the fires burning
For a great many locals, the only clue of Nucor Steel’s existence comes on an early-morning or late-evening drive across the West Seattle Bridge: A steam plume rises to the south, and below it, long billets of freshly extruded steel, still glowing fire red.
Pacific NW staff writer
MOST OF the callers, having never felt the big heat, really don’t understand. The newbies can be forgiven: They probably bought an overpriced hillside condo based on some Web-propagated Emerald City fantasy, only to learn that Seattle’s Youngstown neighborhood has an industrial reality predating the neighborhood itself.
Miffed by an occasional noise, a late-night shower of sparks or a lingering steam cloud often mistaken for smoke, they’ll dial up Nucor Steel and get routed to Bart Kale, the safety and environmental manager — and also the Keep the Neighbors Happy Guy. Like any good conflict-avoidance person, he starts by listening.
“I didn’t understand there was a steel mill down there,” the caller says, the “down there” referring to the former tide flat below the high-arching West Seattle Bridge. “And I certainly didn’t understand that it ran 24 hours a day. This is Seattle. How can that be?”
Kale is patient.
“We have a conversation about how we’ve been here for more than 100 years,” he says. “People usually are accepting of that. But I’m amazed at how many people don’t realize that we’re here.”
It is shocking, yes, but in the land of vexing software and fancy coffee, Seattle still produces stuff that a sledgehammer can’t dent. Big stuff. Hot stuff. Hold-up-the-Tacoma-Narrows-Bridge stuff.
It’s not just coming from Nucor Steel. A couple dozen other manufacturing industries continue to churn away along the Duwamish and into downtown, providing a little-appreciated bedrock of the economy for Seattle and the Puget Sound region. Washington manufacturing companies grind out $154 billion in gross revenues a year; they employ 27,000 workers in Seattle alone, according to the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle.
Perspective: That’s about 12 times what the supposed business colossus National Football League earns in a season, right down to T-shirts and trinkets. Seattle’s hard-hat sector is an underdog dynamo, one that has managed to compete against considerable odds in the vaunted global marketplace.
Most of it clatters along 24/7 to little fanfare. For a great many locals, the only clue of Nucor’s existence comes on an early-morning or late-evening drive across the West Seattle Bridge: A steam plume rises to the south, and below it, long billets of freshly extruded steel, still glowing fire red, creep out from beneath a massive metal roof, on their way to providing structural support for something impressive.
It’s tempting to employ the cliché and suggest that Nucor Steel, the state’s oldest and most prolific recycler, is not your grandfather’s steel mill. But it actually is. Some of the 320 workers, in fact, are third-generation employees. The technology to melt down scrap steel for new uses is hardly new. How does Seattle’s hidden-in-plain-sight steel mill compete?
Guile, mostly. And constant refinement. Just as it did a century ago, steel still melts at about 3,000 degrees. But over the years, Seattle’s steel mill has evolved into one of the most efficient in the world, recycling steel more productively than competitors.
Ask any of the workers who feed the furnace at Nucor: When hot steel is flowing, you’ve got to be fast on your feet.
ASIDE FROM the challenges of competing with steel produced in Asia, Seattle’s steel plant, built in 1905 by local industrialist William Pigott, of Paccar fame, and a partner, has long faced the unique problem of fitting in with its increasingly gentrified urban neighborhood.
Sited for the obvious advantages of rail, river and seaport access, the plant that opened as Seattle Steel sat, for the first half of the 20th century, largely by itself, surrounded by forested slopes. The mill has had numerous owners, operating over the years as Pacific Coast Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Seattle Steel (again) and Birmingham Steel before its assets were acquired by Nucor in 2002.
The neighborhood — called at various times Little Pittsburgh and Youngstown because it attracted workers from the nation’s Midwest steel belt — grew up around the mill. Some of the housing was built by the steel company itself, creating a sort of “company town” within the city.
The plant’s current owners have seen a neighborhood housing boom during their tenure; they take seriously the responsibility of making nice with neighbors. A key part of the company’s strategy is transparency — letting locals in to see, literally, what goes on behind the steel curtain of one of Seattle’s original heavy industries.
It’s not widely advertised, but neighborhood people know that anybody can call and arrange a tour, in groups of five to 10.
“We just go through the mill,” Kale says. “There’s some pretty spectacular parts of it. People leave here . . . well, they’re not bored. There’s melting steel and all that kind of stuff.”
That might be the undersell of the century.
Nucor’s tour begins in the yard where scrap steel, “anything that sticks to a magnet,” is sorted into piles. This is the ending place for much of the recycled metal — cans, cars, old appliances, engine blocks, recycled buildings and rebar, you name it — from a broad swath of the Northwest. It arrives by truck or rail after being processed by recyclers such as Seattle Iron and Metal, just up the Duwamish River.
Most of this occasionally noisy process takes place out of site, under a sprawling shed roof that the company installed at a cost of more than $1 million after purchasing the plant. Acoustic baffling material keeps down the noise.
Beneath the roof, a crane swivels around the yard, dropping Volkswagen-sized electromagnets that pick up tons of scrap at a time with the push of a button. The crane operator mixes and matches scrap of varying composition, depending on what grade of steel is being produced, to move into the melt shop next door.
It’s slightly mesmerizing, watching hundreds of tons of metal flung around like piles of Q-tips. But nothing compared to what comes next.
INSIDE THE melt shop, an electric-arc furnace (think of a Paul Bunyan-sized Dutch oven) filled with molten liquid receives loads of scrap heated by red-hot, carbon-graphite electrodes. An operator, perched in a glass-encased booth above and about 30 yards away, controls the process by computer.
The electrodes, as the name implies, run on electricity, and it’s no exaggeration to say that when they’re switched on, dials dip at Seattle City Light. Even though this plant uses far less energy than competitors, Nucor is City Light’s largest single customer. The company in 2013 consumed more than 377 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, according to City Light. That’s enough to power 42,000 typical Seattle homes.
Most of the time, the electrodes do their work beneath a heavy cover over the furnace. But every 10 minutes into a production cycle, the lid slides briefly open, offering a squint-inducing view inside what’s equal parts fiery beautiful and fiery hell.
Seconds later, an overhead crane bucket delivers another “charge” of scrap steel to the vat. Grab onto something for this: When fresh metal meets molten stew, a magnificent fireball billows from the furnace, producing a heat wave that’s felt even behind the protective glass of the control booth.
The melted steel is poured out and extruded into still-glowing billets, which are blasted with cooling water and cut into sections by torches. This is the red-glowing rail that motorists see from above. The cooling process also produces the plant’s most-visible discharge: steam.
When business is good, the steel rolls out around the clock: 135 tons per hour, up to 800,000 tons a year. Some of it is exported in this form, some rolls on to be reheated and shaped to various products on the premises. Nucor makes 16 grades of steel in five shapes, 150 products in all.
Where does it all go? Beneath your feet, all around you and over your head. About 85 percent of Nucor’s output is structural rebar, ranging from the half-inch widths you buy at Home Depot to the 2¼-inch bars that hold up bridges and buildings. Seattle steel helped build the former World Trade Center. It’s found in foundations for a majority of Northwest homes and every major construction project in the region, ranging from the Space Needle to the ongoing downtown tunnel project.
YOU MIGHT expect that producing all that steel would create an immense quantity of unwanted byproducts. You would be half right. Everything that results from the process gets reused.
Steel slag — metallic impurities that rise to the top of the melt by introducing lime — is skimmed off, broken up and sold as aggregate for asphalt. (Because of its gripping properties, it’s particularly popular with NASCAR.)
Dust that flies up from the furnace is collected in filters in an immense vacuum system. It contains a lot of zinc, which is collected and sold. “Mill scale,” the flakes of steel produced as steel oxidizes, is sold to concrete makers as a strengthening agent. Water, which cools everything in the plant, is treated and reused. The plant has no wastewater discharge.
All of this makes Nucor the most-prolific recycling operation in the state. It also helps explain the company’s success in a hypercompetitive global steel market.
With 19 mills nationwide, Nucor grew into North America’s largest steel producer by refining age-old processes, upgrading plants with new production schemes.
Seattle-made steel, produced with renewable hydropower, has what’s likely the world’s lowest carbon footprint of any steel in the world, the company boasts. Comparable factories in China consume seven to eight times the amount of power to produce the same product.
Beyond that, says plant general manager Matt Lyons, the company has remained competitive through lean times in two ways: It outsteps its competitors by being nimble enough to retool quickly to produce smaller amounts of specialty products. And it has reinvested in its facility and workforce during frequent economic dips.
UNLIKE MANY competitors, Nucor didn’t slash its workforce as the plant dropped to about 65 percent capacity at the depth of the recent recession (it has since recovered to a slowly rising level of about 80 percent). In fact, the parent company, which has 22,000 employees nationally, hasn’t laid anyone off since 1967.
Instead, Nucor in 2009 plowed $500 million into employee-retention programs. It kept workers busy with plant maintenance and upgraded their skills through training.
Worker pay, of course, drops along with profits as the plant sits idle. Nucor, a nonunion employer, uses a performance-based pay system that’s becoming commonplace in heavy industry. Only about a third of workers’ salaries is base pay, the rest determined by plant production.
When business is good, or even OK, it’s happy times for workers. Nucor Seattle’s 320 workers make an average of $85,000 to $90,000 a year — before benefits. Entry-level workers average in excess of $60,000 a year.
Not surprisingly, those rates have made workers intensely loyal to the company: One has popped on the hard hat and goggles here for 40 years. Lyons himself is a third-generation employee of the mill, which looks at its employees “like family,” he says.
Nucor’s workforce is aging, and retirements have caused the company to look harder for both skilled and unskilled workers. The plant has hired many Navy-nuclear electricians, and participates in the local “Core-Plus” program to train and recruit willing high-school graduates who appreciate Nucor’s rare, living-wage blue-collar jobs.
The company’s employment rolls are currently “a little bit heavy,” on purpose Lyons says. “We’re trying to capture some of that tribal knowledge before people leave.”
NOT EVERYONE, of course, is thrilled to have Seattle’s steel mill in their backyard. At various times throughout the city’s history, neighbors have seized the issuance of permits, or changes in ownership, to urge that the big plant just go away.
And managers of many Seattle heavy manufacturers have long grumbled that local politicians seem to be making the challenge of maintaining an industrial base inside city limits more difficult.
Despite its role as an important economic engine, Nucor’s management team laughs out loud at the notion they’ll get state or local tax breaks to help make ends meet, like one notable local aerospace company does.
The plant, in fact, gets few handouts. City Light once gave the mill a discount on power; no more. The plant pays the standard rate for industrial users, one that’s increased by about 20 percent in the past decade and keeps going up.
Also, Nucor and other heavy-industry companies felt overlooked in the recent debate about mandating a a citywide $15 minimum wage. The boost threatened to blow up successful performance-pay ratios that allow manufacturing workers to earn net pay that’s higher than minimum wage, even though some entry-level workers might make less than $15 an hour in base pay. Ongoing negotiations should allow companies with Nucor-style pay structures to comply with any new law, and continue to provide the very sort of quick-advancing, high-paying, blue-collar jobs the city says it wants, says Dave Gering of the Manufacturing Industrial Council.
Even with those challenges, Nucor stands as a strong example of community compromise. Employees are proud of their in-city mill. And some neighbors throw the love right back, even accepting the plant as part of their own comfort zones.
Years ago, in the throes of another transition, the company stopped making railroad tie plates, which it had supplied to most of the nation’s railroads for nearly a century. The punch shears that produced those plates emitted a loud ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk audible nearby.
When it unexpectedly ceased one day, an elderly local woman called — to complain about the lack of noise.
“I can’t sleep at night now,” she said. The white noise of those punch shears had rocked her to sleep for most of her life.
That’s why most complaints that roll in now seem to be from newcomers, Kale says. And that’s OK.
“Other people sort of look at it as the rhythm of the neighborhood.”
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.