April 19, 2014

Elyria
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Investigation into Republic Steel fire continues

LORAIN — An investigation into the Saturday fire at the Republic Steel plant that injured five workers and cost millions of dollars in damage is continuing.

Republic officials and representatives of United Steelworkers Local 1104 are investigating, Mark Huemme, Republic director of marketing, said Sunday.

The injured workers were treated and released from area hospitals, according to a Saturday news release from David Bascone, Republic director of administration.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with our employees and their families,” Bascone wrote.

At about 2:20 p.m., a cell phone caller alerted firefighters that there was heavy smoke coming from a new building at the plant at 1807 E. 28th St., according to a fire department report. The building houses Republic’s new electric arc furnace, which is part of an $85 million upgrade at the plant designed to create 450 jobs.

A preliminary investigation showed an oxygen line to the furnace ruptured at ground level, destroying 8 to 10 feet of piping, the report said. It hasn’t been determined if the rupture caused the fire, but engineers suspect a “back-fire from the operating furnace somehow got into the oxygen supply line.”

The large amount of oxygen had a “blow torch effect” on the fire, which spread to the bottom two floors of the main control center and caused heavy smoke damage to the third floor, the report said.

The fire, which drew departments from Elyria, Sheffield and Elyria and Sheffield townships, was extinguished at 3:30 p.m.

Huemme wouldn’t comment on the fire department’s estimate of millions of dollars in damage and said a tour of the plant by The Chronicle-Telegram on Sunday wasn’t possible. On Nov. 25, Republic began testing the 150-ton, 50-foot high furnace in what is known as “hot commissioning.”

The fire occurred during testing. “There’s a fair amount of complexity to get it fine-tuned and up and running properly,” Huemme said.

When the project was announced in 2011, Republic officials said they hoped to have the furnace operational by August. Ground was broken for construction last November for the furnace, which is supposed to produce 1 million tons of steel annually. Republic said last week that production on the billet caster was to increase over the next several months, with bloom cast production beginning in February.

While acknowledging last week that Republic was under pressure due to project delays, Huemme said Sunday that pressure to meet deadlines was unlikely to have contributed to the fire.

Huemme said it was too early to say when the furnace will be operational. “We have to get a full assessment of what took place and what needs to be done to remedy the situation,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.