In the late 1960’s, the Weirton Steel Division of National Steel Corporation was still operating three Coke Oven Batteries along the Eastern Shore of the Ohio River. The batteries which I think were identified as Numbers 5, 6, and 8 were of varying ages and condition. That brickwork that I talked about in last week’s column, usually lasted about twenty years in a four meter tall battery. When the useful life was ended, the ovens themselves were demolished, leaving behind the machinery and heating apparatus which was built beneath the ovens. The ovens sit on a concrete pad above all of the basement machinery. When the old ovens were demolished often a “pad-up rebuild” was undertaken. In this process new ovens are built on top of the basement containing all of the utilities mechanical and heating equipment. In any event at some point National Steel decided to build a new coke oven battery on Browns Island. The Island, one of the largest on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati was at that time pretty pristine. I mean it had been farmed at times, flooded at times and bore evidence of Native American occupation in the nature of petroglyphs. But for whatever reason National Steel decided to build a new coke oven plant on Brown’s Island, using the latest technology developed or adapted by Koppers Corporation of Pittsburgh. This technology, as far as the ovens themselves went, was to move to six meter tall coke ovens. These ovens, in theory would have a fifty percent greater capacity, per oven, than the existing four meter ovens in the Mainland Coke Plant.
One other very important thing that I haven’t previously mentioned is that when coke is produced the process produces tremendous amounts of gas. A complex system draws that gas off of the top of the inside of the ovens. The gas is very dirty, in that it contains large amounts of Sulphur, benzene, toluene, naphtha and other coal chemicals. Every coke oven facility has a large by-product facility to clean the gas and in the process capture these chemicals. Sure it helps keep the air clean, but these by-product plants have been around a lot longer than air pollution laws. Indeed, what the steel companies really wanted was the coke oven gas. Natural gas found in underground pockets and in shales in our region contains between 1,000 and 1,100 BTU per one cubic foot of gas. BTU is an abbreviation for “British Thermal Unit.” It is a term that measures the relative heating capacity of different fuels. A single BTU is the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree, in an environment kept at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Confusing? It is just a measurement, like 12 inches equal 1 foot; or a Meter is 39.48 inches or 100 centimeters, when an inch is 2.54 centimeters or like horsepower in a car’s engine. As homeowners, one considers the size of a house, its geographic location, number of windows, and amount of insulation all of which can be used to calculate the number of BTUs needed to heat or cool said house, and thus the appropriate size of furnace and air conditioner to install.
If one thinks about the number of BTU’s necessary to bake tons of coal to create coke, or to raise a Blast Furnace to a temperature necessary to melt iron, or to operate a Basic Oxygen Furnace, the numbers of cubic feet of gas necessary are staggering. I can tell you that on January 11, 1984 when the new Weirton Steel Corporation took over the old Weirton Steel Division, the coke plants had been shut down, and the new company had to run on natural gas. At that time the facilities consumed between 50,000 and 60,000 MCF of natural gas a day. MCF stands for one thousand cubic feet. So 50,000 MCF equals 50,000,000 cubic feet of gas. At that time the delivered price from the local distribution system was $6.52 per MCF. That amounted to a cost of $326,000 per day. Annualized it was a staggering sum of $118,000,000 per year. Those steel companies with coke plants avoided much of these costs because clean coke oven gas contains 550 BTU per cubic foot, about half of that of natural gas. However, a well operated coke plant can produce more than enough Coke Oven gas to fuel its own operations, and most of the other operations at the plant. Even then excess gas is required to be flared or burnt off. We see this most days when we go past the Follansbee coke plant. At the Northern end of the property there is a stack that always is lit and frequently has a big flame at the top. That is excess gas being burnt off.
Most coke plants use their own gas to function. Others operate on a mixed gas system whereby coke oven gas, is mixed with much lower BTU content Blast Furnace gas, in a mixed gas system. Enough about this. It takes many thousands of cubic feet of natural or other fuel gas to operate a coke plant or an entire steel mill every day. So capturing, cleaning and burning these waste gasses was a huge part of the business. The other chemicals were sold off to chemical companies, think naphtha, think moth balls. That is just one of many examples. Another is TNT which stands for Tri-Nitro Toluene.
Now in the mid to late 1960’s when National Steel decided to build its new coke oven battery, for reasons that I have never deciphered they chose to put in on Brown’s Island. I kind of get it in that, the coal to be turned into coke would arrive by barge. That was already the case at the Mainland Coke Plant. But to do it on the Island meant that the Company had to build another unloading facility on the Island. Either that or it could be unloaded on the Mainland and be taken by truck over to the Island via a bridge. Except that there was no bridge. Amazingly to build this coke plant, National Steel had to raise the level of the Island to protect it from flooding and build up the banks of the Island to keep them from eroding. (I am old enough to remember Pike Island, before it finally washed away in the early 1980s.) Since the employees there could not be expected to swim to work, they had to build a bridge from the West Virginia Mainland to the Island. The bridge was substantial enough to also carry a 40 inch diameter gas line between the Mainland and the Island, as well as various utilities. It had to be strong enough to accept truck deliveries, i.e. no three ton weight limit for this bridge. For some reason that I no longer recall the facility also required the creation of a temporary bridge from the Island to the Ohio shore. Since that bridge was classified as temporary, and over the River’s back channel, it did not have to be built to the stringent standards required for the other, gas line carrying bridge, which had to be built to permit the passage of towboats and their barges which navigate the Ohio River 24/7/365. Plus once National Steel got the coke plant built it would have to build a new by-products plant to service it.
To me it seems that it was a project on which someone at National Steel had an imagination which had been permitted to run wild. The extra features had to significantly increase the construction cost over placing the plant on the Mainland, by millions of dollars.