By Chrissy Suttles
Beaver County Times
ALIQUIPPA – A New York-based company plans to revive Aliquippa steel production with a $218 million advanced manufacturing facility on land once occupied by J&L Steel’s tin mill.
72 Steel, founded in 2016 by Chinese-American entrepreneurs, committed Tuesday to purchase the land owned by developer Chuck Betters to build a steel fabrication plant on 44 acres of the historic Aliquippa Works site along the Ohio River.
The operation will include an electric-arc furnace — a steelmaking technology with lower carbon intensity than traditional methods — to melt scrap steel and produce 500,000 tons of rebar, or reinforcement steel, annually for a variety of industries. Its production capacity and output value are expected to reach $400 million.
Once complete, the company expects to hire 300 to 400 permanent employees, but hundreds of construction workers will be needed to build the facility, roadways, parking space, product storage areas and ancillary buildings. Regional union leadership could not immediately comment on whether they’re in talks with 72 Steel to hire union builders and/or operators. The plant’s anticipated completion is 2025; it will be 72 Steel’s first manufacturing site.
72 Steel plans to use “energy-saving and environmental protection technologies” during production, including air and water pollution control equipment and an electric-arc furnace from Italian technology supplier Tenova.
Xiaoyan Zhang, senior business adviser at 72 Steel, said the company’s decision to build was prompted by the 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that included $110 billion in new funds for roads, bridges and other major projects. The company toured sites in West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina before settling on Beaver County due to its river and rail access and the Pittsburgh region’s enduring history of steelmaking.
The company’s $218 million investment is “an initial investment,” Zhang said. “Maybe, down the road, there would be some additional (investment).” Company leadership, he said, “feels proud as Chinese Americans about making America great and supporting the infrastructure bill.”
The move has been in the works for months; 72 Steel leadership toured the proposed facility late last year alongside landowner Chuck Betters, state and local officials and members of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. State business filings show 72 Steel registered with Pennsylvania in June 2022.
“Pittsburgh has a celebrated history as the manufacturing powerhouse that built the modern world,” said Matt Smith, chief growth officer at the Allegheny Conference. “Today, we are positioned as the region where the next-generation of manufacturing is happening now – spanning advanced, additive, green manufacturing and more.”
J&L Steel’s mill at 611 Woodlawn Road opened in 1910 and expanded in 1947 for tin plate production. It operated until the 1980s when Aliquippa Works, by that time owned by LTV Corp., closed amid the region’s steel collapse.
Aliquippa Works at one time employed more than 10,000 workers; nearly 8,000 people were out of jobs when the site closed, leaving former company town Aliquippa financially ruined with a disintegrated tax base. The site was later demolished and, in recent years, served as a staging area for Shell’s ethane cracker plant in Potter Township.
“My dad put 18 years in at this very site,” said Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker during a Tuesday groundbreaking ceremony. “My father walked out of this mill in ‘86 thinking steel was never going to come back. I was so emotional this morning thinking about the possibility of what will be … I can’t wait to see cars come through that tunnel with stickers: ‘My kid goes to Hopewell,’ ‘My kid goes to Beaver Falls,’ or ‘My kid goes to New Brighton.’ I can’t wait to see those stickers come through that tunnel like when my dad was working here.”
72 Steel has not yet closed on the deal, but Betters said they’re on their way. The Beaver County developer pledged to invest $1.5 million of his own money into the project within seven days of closing.
“I’m comfortable you’re very honorable people,” he told 72 Steel leadership. Once the deal closes, planning and environmental permitting will begin.
Most of the remaining Aliquippa Works land is now owned by cellular PVC manufacturer Versatex and U.S. Minerals, which makes roofing and abrasive products like coal slag abrasives, iron silicate roofing granules and mineral fillers.
Tuesday’s groundbreaking featured speakers from 72 Steel and state, county and local lawmakers and figureheads.
“It’s always about jobs, jobs and more jobs,” said state Rep. Rob Matzie, D-16, Harmony Township. “There were some close calls on this property, suitors have come and gone, and we are hopeful … we will see construction. I live across the river, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was able to see the J&L smokestack on this property. I still live up on that hill, and I’ll be able to see this new construction when it’s complete, hopefully, sooner rather than later.”
Stephanie Sun, executive director of former Gov. Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian/Pacific American Affairs, called Tuesday’s event a milestone for Chinese Americans living in Pennsylvania, noting that May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States.
“The Asian/Pacific American community is also the fastest-growing population in the United States with a strong international network of investment and business opportunities,” she said, adding it’s been just 80 years since the repeal of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act.
Beaver County Commissioners’ Chairman Dan Camp said the groundbreaking marked a new era of Beaver County steel, adding Beaver County is “always open for business.”
“We want to bring more work to the area, and assist communities where they can raise a family,” Camp said. “To make Beaver County what it was when the steel mills were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a strong focus on economic growth and creation of good-paying jobs. Just like (Walker’s) father, my relatives and many other Beaver Countians who worked tirelessly on this very ground to help create the rich history that Beaver County has today.”