Made in NC: Far from the Rust Belt, Nucor makes steel in Hertford County

jneff@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2013 

— One of the world’s most efficient and high-tech steel mills sits in a remote corner of Hertford County on the banks of the Chowan River.

At the north end of Nucor’s minimill, workers feed in scrapped cars, pig iron and the chopped remnants of buildings and bridges. In five hours, the mill transforms it into massive steel plates destined for bridges, ships, railroad cars, barges, utility poles and off-shore oil platforms.

A far cry from the old grimy, sprawling steel plants of Pittsburgh or Gary, Ind., the Nucor mill sits amid pine forests, cotton fields and tobacco farms.

Plant general manager Bob McCracken jokes that Nucor has a unique way of scouting plant locations.

“We fly into a major airport and tune into the biggest radio station we can find,” said McCracken, a third-generation steelworker from Michigan. “Then we drive until the radio station fades out.”

Nucor has been a bright spot for the fading economy of the Ahoskie area, which has been plagued by the closure of two aluminum factories, a chicken plant and the massive Ford plant in nearby Suffolk, Va.

The plant employs about 450 workers, almost all local hires, trained on site or sent to some of Nucor’s other 22 minimills for instruction.

Several business have thrived because of the plant, including a Colony Tire outlet that services trucks shipping to and from the plant, and Murfreesboro Metal Tech, which repairs and maintains the sprawling complex.

The plant also has revived the North Carolina & Virginia Railroad, a 168-mile line that curves from the plant through Ahoskie up to Boykin, Va.

“The railroad had one foot on a banana peel and the other in a grave,” said Cal Bryant, editor of The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.

The Cofield minimill is only mini in comparison with the gigantic blast furnaces of the Rust Belt. The plant is Dominion Power’s largest electric consumer and has buildings that dwarf airplane hangars.

To start the process, crane operators dip massive magnets into metal heaped into something resembling huge horses stalls: cars crushed into cubes; stacks of plate and structural steel; rusted remnants of bicycles, fencing and wheelbarrows; and a mountain of softball-sized pig iron, ore smelted to create higher iron content.

The cranes drop the scrap into the massive bucket-shaped kettle of an electric arc furnace glowing red with melted steel. An overhead crane slides a lid directly over the furnace. Hanging from the lid is a graphite electrode the size of a large pine trunk. Lowered into the metal, the electrode shoots 140 megawatts of electricity in a controlled and continuous 40-inch lightning bolt equivalent to one-sixth of the output of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant.

The melting steel is deafening – cracking and thundering and hissing. Showers of sparks and flame spit through the furnace doors and from the top when the lid is raised or lowered. The molten steel glows white and yellow, too bright for the naked eye. Molten slag – waste scum that forms on the surface – pours from a door that could be mistaken for the gates to hell.

Inside the furnace pulpit, a computerized control room, Leonard “Lemonade” Meads peers through tinted glass at the furnace 40 feet away. Meads used to work as an electrician in Edenton until Nucor hired him in 2001.

“When I saw the furnace, I said, ‘That’s for me!’ ” said Meads, who aims to melt 18 batches, each 165 tons, every 12-hour shift.

Meads directed a robotic probe into the furnace, like jabbing a pork shoulder with a meat thermometer, looking for a temperature between 2,950 and 2,980 degrees. Higher temperatures shorten the furnace’s lifespan.

When the temperature is just right, Mead tilts the furnace, opens a slide gate and pours the steel into a massive keg-shaped ladle.

Chris Turner, a Gates County native, tweaks the batch, adding aluminum to rid it of dissolved oxygen, and lime to remove sulfur.

When ready, an overhead crane lifts the ladle and slides through the cathedral-sized building to the casting machine, which spits out a continuous ribbon of steel, 6 inches thick and 6 to 10 feet wide.

Here is the most complicated, delicate yet brutal step. The casting machine is made of steel, and liquid steel can weld the works into an unmoving mess.

The goal: create a long plank with a solid skin encasing liquid steel.

The ladle dips the liquid steel into a purse-shaped copper mold, which jiggles and pours the steel through a course of rollers, all bathed in water to cool the steel. If all goes well, a solid ribbon of steel at 1,800 to 2,000 degrees emerges.

The risk is a “breakout”: when the slab pops its shell like a water balloon, sending molten steel pouring through the machine and bringing the line to a halt.

The casting technician, Robert Parrish, has been at the plant since Day One in 2000 after leaving his job at a saw mill.

Breakouts now occur yearly, but used to occur every month in the early days of the plant, Parrish said. They’d shut down the mill and bring out the saws and hammers and torches to remove the spilled steel, which they recycled to the scrap piles. “The startup was tough,” Parrish said. “I asked myself, what have I gotten myself into?”

Now Parrish wouldn’t trade his job for the world. He works four 12-hour shifts, then helps his family farm 500 acres of sage, which they sell to a local factory that extracts fragrances. Like many coworkers, Parrish grew up on a farm, handy with tools and unafraid of hard work.

“I love my job, and I love my company,” Parrish said.

Robotic electric torches slice the ribbon of steel to size in preparation for the final rolling.

The slabs are heated and run back and forth between massive rollers. Like a giant pasta machine, each run makes the steel thinner and longer, until a 24-foot, 6-inch-thick slab is seven-tenths of an inch thick and 199 feet long.

According to Hertford County officials, the plant does more than make steel.

Former Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn runs a program for the elderly. Nucor has been a huge help.

“I’ve never approached them when they didn’t jump on board,” Blackburn said. “And without even asking, they call me every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, would you like to have fried turkeys?”

Presumably, cooking with 450 degree peanut oil is a breeze compared with molten steel.

Next week: Making music

Neff: 919-829-4516

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