The Ashland Works steel mill is coming down after operating for the better part of 100 years on the Ohio River. Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. confirms that it will demolish the idled Kentucky mill that it acquired from AK Steel in 2019. Although there were initial discussions about restarting the mill to produce pig iron, ultimately the decision was made by CEO Lourenco Goncalves to raze the facility.
The steel building and equipment will be dismantled and recycled as scrap where possible. Cleveland-ClIffs is still assessing the amount of scrap that will be generated in the demolition, but expects the result to be net cash positive for the company.
A Cleveland-Cliffs spokesperson said a timeline for the demolition has not been established. Crews will prepare the site for alternative use, but it is unknown whether Cliffs will retain the property or sell it.
The history of Ashland Works is one of aspiration, acquisition, closures and renewal. American Rolling Mill acquired the Ashland facilities and nearby iron works in the 1920s with plans to build an integrated steel mill along the Ohio River. Starting operations with the Ashland blast furnace from the Ashland Iron & Mining site and a pig iron blast furnace at Norton Iron Works built around 1864, the company began to take form.
Ashland Works opened in October 1923 featuring the first continuous rolling mill, producing around 40,000 tons of sheet steel per month, according to historical accounts. The Bellefonte blast furnace was added in 1942. Producing 1,000 tons of iron per day, it was later enlarged to increase capacity to 2,600 tons. Through the years the mill went through several expansions, and at its peak had more than 8,000 employees.
In 1948 the company was renamed ARMCO Steel Corp. It rapidly expanded and modernized during the 1950s, adding a trial taconite pellet plant, hot strip mill, cold reduction mill and other upgrades. The Bellefonte furnace gained a sister furnace, Amanda, in 1968 to replace the Ashland furnace. The ancient Norton furnace was demolished in 1964.
The efforts to modernize the company resulted in the elimination of some facilities and the loss of over 2,000 jobs by 1984. The 1990s were a turbulent time for ARMCO that resulted in the closure of the hot strip mill in 1992, followed by the cold strip mill and sinter plant and coating lines.
With debts mounting and profits falling, ARMCO sold 40% of the company to Japan’s Kawasaki Steel in 1989. Then, facing bankruptcy, it sold the remaining shares to Kawasaki in 1994. ARMCO was renamed AK Steel.
AK Steel idled the Bellefonte in 1996 and by 1997 only the Amanda furnace, caster and one finishing line remained operational at Ashland Works. The company regained its footing by 2004 and benefited from a $40 million tax break that allowed for a number of modifications and improvements that resulted in production of high-quality steel for the automotive sector.
The good times were not to last, unfortunately. A surge of steel imports to the U.S. resulted in the 2015 idling of steelmaking at Ashland Works, leaving only the hot-dip galvanizing line operational. The decision was made to permanently close Ashland Works by 2019. In December 2019, Cleveland-Cliffs acquired AK Steel.
The facility has been the lifeblood of four-generations of Ashland residents, and its final demise comes with sadness but hope for new vitalization for the region.
“We have to be respectful,” Tom Gibbs, president and CEO of Ashland Allliance, told the Daily Independent. “This is a plant that at one time employed 8,000 people in our area. It was a plant that helped our country win wars and funded the education of the families of those employees.”
Noting that the plant had been shuttered for three years, Gibbs added, “I think we all knew this day was coming. But if it can’t remain AK Steel, then we have to look to the future.”
By Sandy Williams, Sandy@SteelMarketUpdate.com
Note: A chart with current blast furnace status can be found on the SMU website.
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