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ANCHORAGE - Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is the first to admit he doesn't like the idea of using foreign steel to construct major projects in Alaska, including the $230 million expansion at his namesake airport in Anchorage.
But Alaska's senior senator, who has brought billions of dollars in construction projects to Alaska with his political muscle, says the ailing U.S. steel industry can no longer provide much of the material needed for those projects.
"We've lost 32 steel companies in the last three years," Stevens said. "The capacity of the (domestic) steel industry is very low."
And if steel can be produced domestically, the waiting period for the material is lengthy and it's more expensive, Stevens said.
"When you have deadlines to meet, you can't stand in line and wait for it," said Stevens. "Contractors are the ones who buy it, and they still have to do business on the basis on the bottom line."
Stevens said he expects that most of the structural steel to be used in the proposed $12.5 billion national missile defense system project in Alaska will come from Canada, because domestic mills won't have the capacity to meet the timeline or price requirements.
Stevens points out he's tried to help the U.S. steel industry. He and Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, Alaska junior senator, in April tried to broker a deal with steel-state Democrats in the Senate for their support of oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
The Alaska senators offered support of heath-care costs to retired steel workers and contracts with natural-gas pipeline work in return for support of drilling in ANWR. A more than 3,000-mile natural gas pipeline would have required a $5 billion order for domestic steel.
The deal fell through less than two days before the ANWR vote, which was six votes short of the 60 needed to break a Senate filibuster.
Korean-produced steel is being used for the expansion at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Federal dollars also are bankrolling a $28 million rail station at Anchorage International, much of which also is being constructed with Korean-made steel.
In addition, several thousand tons of Korean-made steel is en route for the construction of a $200 million U.S. Army hospital at Fort Wainright. The steel is expected to arrive at the Port of Anchorage in August and will be trucked to Fairbanks.
A recently completed $250 million hospital at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage used Canadian-made steel in its construction, said John Killoran, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Anchorage. The use of foreign steel is allowed under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, that encourages free trade among nations, Killoran said.
Instead of free trade, U.S. steel makers prefer to call it illegal dumping. Foreign producers like Korea have for years been dumping steel in the United States at the cost of American jobs and national security, said Bette Kovach, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel Corp.
"It's a massive problem," Kovach said.
The dumping of foreign steel has driven half of the American steel makers to bankruptcy, and prices have fallen to 20-year lows, said Mike Dixon, spokesman for U.S. Steel Corp. in Pennsylvania.
"Imported steel has run a lot of us out of business," Dixon said.
U.S. Steel, which provided structural material in everything from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge, can't compete with foreign makers and has stopped producing structural steel.
Bethlehem Steel also quit producing structural steel a few years ago for the same reason, Kovach said.
Dave Ford, business manager of the International Association of Bridge, Structural & Ornamental Ironworkers Local 751 in Anchorage, said nearly three-quarters of steel used in major projects in Alaska over the last five or six years has come mostly from Canada, where it is cheaper to buy and ship to Alaska.