Work continues on NLMK Pennsylvania’s new $100 million furnace at its Farrell steel plant. Production on the new furnace is expected to begin in November.

IT’S been a rough few years — nearly a half decade — for the NLMK Pennsylvania steel mill in Farrell.

The difficulties began in March of 2018, when then-President Donald Trump announced tariffs against imported steel.

The tariffs came down like a hammer on NLMK Pennsylvania, local subsidiary of a major Russian steel manufacturer that was primarily using slab steel from its parent company to manufacture steel coil — flat-rolled steel for use in consumer goods like automobiles and large appliances.

NLMK appealed the tariffs with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which cost more than $160 million over the next two years, and lost initially before receiving a partial refund of those payments.

Even as the tariff appeals process continued, the mill’s labor contract expired and workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America went on a six-month strike in 2020 and early 2021, which hamstrung production — and profits — at the mill.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine in March left NLMK’s worldwide network with an image problem that corporation Chairman Vladimir Lisin, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, tried to head off by speaking against the invasion.

But there are now signs that, at long last, the clouds hanging over NLMK’s are beginning to part and sunshine is breaking through.

About 100 million signs.

That’s the estimated amount, in U.S. dollars, that the company is spending to build a state-of-the-art walking beam furnace at the Farrell mill.

It’s difficult to overstate what this investment means to NLMK. It will allow the company to produce better-quality steel with a smoother surface finish and produce that steel more efficiently with less energy use and lower costs.

In an interview with Herald Business Editor Michael Roknick, NLMK Pennsylvania President Bob Miller said the rolling beam furnace will allow the company into higher-end markets that it couldn’t previously access.

It’s difficult to overstate what this investment means to the Shenango Valley. With more than 600 workers, including those based in NLMK’s Sharon Coatings division, the company is one of the county’s largest employers, and third — after Wabtec in Grove City and Joy Cone in Hermitage — largest manufacturing employer.

As recently as before the COVID-19 pandemic, NLMK was responsible for almost one-fourth of Farrell Area School District’s tax collections.

Finally, it’s difficult to overstate what this investment means for NLMK’s continued presence.

NLMK officials had previously wanted to install the walking beam furnace, but the one-two tariff-labor strike punch shelved those plans.

Happily, that turned out to be only a delay, not a cancellation.

Knowing that NLMK needed this production upgrade to compete in the global market, it would have been reasonable to wonder if management would pull up stakes, even though no one with the company — even during the strike when the situation might have been at its most dire — ever suggested that might happen.

With this investment, those fears evaporate like a snowball in — well, a walking beam furnace.

If the company was going to relocate or shut down, it wouldn’t be spending the price of a power-hitting Major League outfielder at the factory.

Miller himself said as much.

“This is an amazing project that solidifies the future of the mill,” he told Roknick.

And with NLMK’s rough patch in the rear-view mirror, that future now appears bright.

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