Suburban Philly steel plants busy with NYC, Navy contracts

The ArcelorMittal steel-plate plants in Coatesville and Conshohocken are among the industrial facilities that could benefit from the expansion of the U.S. Navy proposed in President Trump’s budget guidelines if Congress decides to speed new ship construction.

Trump has said he wants to boost the Navy’s total ships to 350 from today’s 275, though his proposed 2018 budget does not support much of an immediate increase.

“The entire fleet of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers contains steel from Coatesville — from the first-ever USS Langley, to the USS Enterprise, which is currently under construction,” Mike Nichols, a Drexel University graduate who has headed quality control at the Philadelphia-area plants since 2009, noted in a publicly posted Memorial Day memo recounting the plants’ military role.

Nichols said Coatesville’s Navy carrier plate is personal for his family: His father, William, served on the carrier Hornet in the Korean War, built with Coatesville plate. His brother flew fighter jets from carriers armored with Coatesville steel when he was Capt. James P. Nichols, USN. And his son, Lt. j.g. Matthew W. Nichols, flies a Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk helicopter from the USS George H.W. Bush, which is among the ships that have been active in the Indian Ocean in the years since the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The hull of every naval submarine is made with our steel, including the first atomic-powered submarine, the Nautilus,” Nichols added. “Our steel is found in military Humvees, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles. Together, Coatesville and Conshohocken supply steel plate for the Navy’s landing platform dock (LPD) vessels, also called Amphibious Assault Ships,” which are named for the Sept. 11, 2001, attack sites — USS New York, USS Arlington, USS Somerset.

ArcelorMittal also has a larger, newer steel-plate plant at Burns Harbor, Ind., and two dozen other U.S. steel pipe, sheet, beam and tube plants, built for the former Ispat, LTV and International steel groups as well as Bethlehem and Lukens, employing a total of 18,000 Americans. It also has steelworks across Europe and Asia.

The former Lukens Steel plants in Coatesville and Conshohocken were acquired by ArcelorMittal (based in the European legal haven of Luxembourg) along with then-owner Bethlehem Steel Corp. in the late 2000s in a merger, restructuring and cost-cutting deal backed by billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. He left the ArcelorMittal board earlier this year to serve as President Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, putting him in a position to advocate for his longtime industry.

The Coatesville plant employs 770; Conshohocken, about 290. The numbers rise and fall with orders. Plant workers are members of the United Steelworkers labor union.

Coatesville’s electric-arc furnaces produce carbon- and alloy-steel plates, customize flame-cut shapes, steel-clad rolls and plate steel for such specialized applications as nuclear-reactor containment vessels.The Conshohocken plant turns Coatesville steel slabs into coils and plate for assembly into construction equipment and other uses.

Besides military and industrial jobs, ArcelorMittal says its plates have been used in landmark buildings including New York’s Freedom Tower (replacing the destroyed World Trade Center) and the new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson; in the Apple campus at Cupertino, Calif.; in Philadelphia’s Cira and Comcast towers; and most recently at New York’s 1,400-foot One Vanderbilt office tower, built by contractor Tishman Speyer and steel constructor Banker Steel for SL Green Realty Corp.

“Coatesville and Conshohocken provided all of the plate steel for One Vanderbilt. To date, ArcelorMittal has produced over 7,900 tons of plate steel that will be used for built-up structural columns that frame the building,” company spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said in an interview.

The columns provide the tower’s foundation and framework. “There will be an additional 2,000 tons required of thinner-gauge plates for the upper floors of the building,” with some individual pieces weighing more than 35 tons each, Holdford added. The plates range from 3/8 inch to 6 inches thick.

Local clients for ArcelorMittal plate include the Bucks County wind-electric manufacturing plant owned by Spain-based Gamesa and Fisher Tank, which builds industrial and water-storage tanks at its Chester plant; among others.