There’s Reason to Celebrate in Fairfield, Alabama

By Jeffrey Bonior
Oct 28 2020 |
The new Electric Arc Furnace at the U.S. Steel Fairfield Works plant in Alabama, pictured under construction in February. U.S. Steel announced the successful startup of new furnace on Oct. 26. | Photo courtesy U.S. Steel

A new state-of-the-art electric arc furnace was just turned on at the U.S. Steel Fairfield Works mill, where there’s hope that better days are on the horizon.

Just about everyone loves a comeback story.

In 2015, a steelmaking electric arc furnace sat waiting to be installed at the U.S. Steel Fairfield Works steel mill in Fairfield, Ala. It was to be the wave of the future of modern, cost-effective and more environmentally sustainable steelmaking.

But around the same time, a global steel crisis took hold. China’s massive, unchecked steel overcapacity led to a surge in steel imports. Dozens of mills across the country closed; tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Fairfield Works wasn’t immune. Located just outside Birmingham, the mill at one time employed approximately 2,000 steelworkers, and featured both a hot rolling mill and a pipe mill. But like much of the steel industry, Fairfield had been hit hard by an onslaught of unfairly traded imports from China. By 2015, the hot rolling mill was permanently shut down, and the pipe mill struggled to the point where there were only 220 steelworkers left working at the plant.

And the electric arc furnace sat, waiting to be installed and turned on.

Until this week.

On Monday, U.S. Steel officially announced the successful startup of its new $412 million electric arc furnace at Fairfield Works, which it says will be able to produce 1.6 million tons of steel per year.

While it is no longer the days of the 2,000-person workforce, things are looking up at the mill, which now employs about 700 USW workers per day. The pipe mill, which produces high-quality Oil Country Tubular Goods products for the oil and gas industry, also remains operational.  

“This is absolutely good news for Fairfield, and that is not counting the contractors we have out there right now,” said Marc Shields, who works as president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1013, which represents the Fairfield workforce. “It’s not just the 700 for 800 jobs we have here at U.S. Steel, but it also creates a lot of jobs for other entities.”

Years ago, open hearth steelmaking was replaced by huge blast furnaces that manufactured the abundance of steel that America needed during World War II, followed by the new home appliance manufacturing and national infrastructure built during the booming post-war period.

But as the American steel industry contracted during the late 20th century — and then faced China’s unfair trade practices in the first decade of the 21st century — it was clear innovation was needed.

Electric arc furnaces make steel from melted scrap instead of iron ore, utilizing electrical energy to melt a heat of steel. This process charges recycled steel scrap into the furnace, which is then heated by electric arcs, melting the scrap into liquid steel.

The furnaces can operate with fewer workers, and critically are easier to stop and restart compared to traditional blast furnaces that must operate continuously to avoid mechanical damage.

In a statement, U.S. Steel President and CEO David Burritt said that the new electric arc furnace in Fairfield “adds significantly more sustainable steelmaking technology to our portfolio,” noting that it is part of the strategy of combining integrated and mini-mill technology.

“We made a commitment to add electric arc steelmaking to our operating footprint and as part of our ‘Best of Both’ strategy,” Burritt said. “This startup delivers on that promise and I am very pleased with the way our people safely accomplished this while navigating the disruptive influences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

U.S. Steel Senior Vice President-Tubular Products Douglas Matthews added he is proud of the Fairfield team for their “perseverance and continues focus throughout the construction and startup process, especially on our core value of safety.”

United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway also welcomed the announcement.

“This is an important step forward for the current employees making world-class pipe and it will further result in additional jobs,” Conway said. “Restoring a hot end at the plant is essential to maintaining and growing good union jobs in Fairfield.”

Shields, the president of the USW local, noted that folks in Fairfield dealt with “a rough time” after the blast furnaces were demolished. The closure has a ripple effect on the community; even the local Walmart closed down.

“They had purchased the arc furnace but it was laying in pieces on the other side and they had it sprawled out everywhere,” Shields recalled. “The electric stuff was stored indoors, and they destroyed our means for making steel before they had the thing built. It sat there for five years, but they finally got it built and our business is growing again since they got the EAF running.”

While the country continues to struggle due to the ongoing pandemic, folks in Fairfield are hopeful that the new electric arc furnace will play a role in another big comeback.

“The economy is thriving when the steel industry is thriving,” Shields said. “It’s cars, infrastructure, bridges, and all the strength that makes America great.”

To hear more about Fairfield, including its proud history of steelmaking and what the mill has meant to the community, check out this episode of The Manufacturing Report podcast, which is embedded below.