The owners of the Sparrows Point steel mill plan to raze the closed plant, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday, as political leaders from Towson to Washington mourned the loss of a landmark that once employed tens of thousands.
The officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, vowed to help steelworkers who have lost their jobs. But the head of United Steelworkers Local 9477 was angry that a key part of the plant is being sold to North Carolina-based Nucor Corp. — to be used for spare parts.
Joe Rosel, president of the local in Sparrows Point, said he had received no indication from political leaders that anything could be done to stop the sale of the plant's cold mill to Nucor.
"I haven't heard anything that would lead me to believe that we're not in a very difficult situation," he said. "I'm disgusted and outraged by the fact that it came down to this, and there weren't enough proactive things done to save this plant."
Kamenetz acknowledged that Nucor's deal for the 12-year-old cold mill — which produced precision-thickness steel that could be used for car parts, furniture and other items — was part of a process that extinguishes any hope that the plant might reopen. "A century of steelmaking as we know it has come to an end," he said at a news conference.
With the news that Charlotte, N.C.-based Nucor has acquired the cold mill, it is now clear that the steelworkers' jobs will not return "in the form that they knew it," Kamenetz said. He said officials of co-owner Hilco Trading "have indicated that they are going to liquidate every remaining asset and bring the structure down to the ground."
Gary Epstein, Hilco's chief marketing officer, said the company had marketed the mill aggressively and tried to sell it to someone who wanted to continue operating it.
"At this point, we do not have specific details on a timeline with regard to the next stage or steps, other than continuing to market the assets that exist, which we will do aggressively," Epstein said.
Nucorp did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, told colleagues in a floor speech Thursday that it's time to "start looking out for American jobs."
"We looked the other way when foreign imports began to drive down our prices and drive down our steel mills," she said. "We've got to begin to reclaim what we're thinking here. America's steel and steelworkers protected the freedom of the United States. At Sparrows Point, they made shells for landing craft, airplanes and ships. We have to remember whose steel in our country really built America."
She urged Sparrows Point's former workers to take advantage of government programs that can help them find new jobs and get health coverage.
In a statement, O'Malley said he was disappointed by the news and vowed that the state would work with the union and be ready to help those who lost jobs.
"We are confident that the dedicated steelworkers of Sparrows Point will transition to new jobs and continue to play an important role in our economy," he said.
Kamenetz pledged to reach out to the laid-off workers with a safety net and to bring new jobs to the area.
Earlier this year, the county formed the Sparrows Point Partnership, a committee to explore redevelopment possibilities related to the expansion of the nearby port of Baltimore. The group is exploring ways to attract jobs in advanced manufacturing, distribution and clean energy to the peninsula, Kamenetz said.
"We're tough here in Baltimore County," he said. "We get knocked down, we're getting back up. And we're going to bring thousands of jobs back to this peninsula."
Dan Gundersen, the county's economic development chief and chairman of the Sparrows Point Partnership, said the group has been researching the land's infrastructure and environmental condition, and has begun a market analysis to determine the types of industries the area could support.
Recently, the county received a $1.4 million grant to create an employment program for the laid-off workers. Within a week, the county will use the federal funds to hire four people to handle outreach for the steelworkers, Kamenetz said. Three economic development employees are dedicated to helping the laid-off Sparrows Point employees, officials said.
Workers can also apply for benefits such as extended unemployment compensation and wage subsidies through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, and officials have been urging them to apply soon so they don't miss deadlines. The county will use the Eastpoint Career Center as the central location for workers to find help with job training resources and other assistance.
Gundersen said county officials do not know the timeline for the dismantling of the plant. "Our understanding is that Hilco has about two years to dispose of these assets," he said.
Rosel said the workers face a difficult and uncertain future, and "only time will tell whether the redevelopment [of the peninsula] is going to be successful."
"Even with retraining, these people are going to have trouble finding this kind of job," Rosel said, pointing to the good pay and benefits they had at the steel plant. "There aren't a lot of jobs out there like the ones we had."
About 2,000 people were laid off from the plant when RG Steel shut it down over the summer as part of a bankruptcy filing, and the mill sold for pennies on the dollar. Sparrows Point's new owners — Environmental Liability Transfer, which bought the land and some buildings, and Hilco, which acquired the rest — picked it up for $72.5 million in August, four years after the plant sold for $810 million.
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