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TONAWANDA COKE MAY BUY BETHLEHEM'S COKE OVENS

Tonawanda Coke is considering buying Bethlehem Steel's Lackawanna coke ovens, which are scheduled to shut down at the end of this month.

Tonawanda Coke and Bethlehem Steel are in talks but haven't disclosed details of their negotiations, said Lackawanna Mayor John Kuryak.

Louis Thomas, district president of United Steelworkers of America, said: "There's nothing definite that I can report right now. Everybody's taking a look at it, including us."

Bette Kovach, a Bethlehem Steel spokeswoman, declined to comment on reports about the possible sale of the Lackawanna site. She said Monday that the company was staying with its July 25 announcement, in which Bethlehem outlined plans to halt production at the end of the month and eliminate 340 jobs, as part of a broader company effort to cut costs.

Robert Bloom, president of Tonawanda Coke, could not be reached to comment.

If Tonawanda Coke does buy the plant, it's not known how many people the new owner might employ there, or what Tonawanda Coke is offering to pay the Bethlehem workers.

Kuryak said he's encouraged that another company has shown interest in the site. "Any jobs preserved would be great for the city," he said.

Assemblyman Richard Smith, D-Hamburg, said Tonawanda Coke is taking steps to transfer the necessary air and water quality permits from Bethlehem to Tonawanda Coke to allow it to operate the site.

Smith, who used to work in the coke ovens, said that if production stops as scheduled at THE end of September, a new operator would have to move in quickly. Once the coke ovens are closed for an extended period of time and cool off, he said, they would essentially need to be rebuilt.

"I would gather all the parties are working as hard as they can to make it work," Smith said.

Daniel Sullivan, a coke ovens worker who lives in Colden, said he was surprised to see another company step in and show interest in buying the plant, after Bethlehem had planned to close it.

Still, Sullivan said workers aren't sure whether the proposed deal will happen. He noted that there are shipments of coal on railroad cars at the plant waiting to be unloaded.

"We'll be out of coal for the ovens Thursday at the latest," he said. "If we put that coal (from the railroad cars) on the ground Wednesday or Thursday, that's an excellent sign."

The ovens bake bituminous coal to make coke, which is used in blast furnaces to make iron. The ovens have produced coke for other companies since Bethlehem halted basic steelmaking operations in Lackawanna in 1983.

Tonawanda Coke, which has operated since 1978, makes foundry coke. It comes in smaller pieces and is used in the production of cast-iron products such as engine blocks. The plant supplies foundry coke used in Ford Motor Co.'s Windsor casting plant in Windsor, Ont.

Last year, Tonawanda Coke was part of an anti-dumping complaint that sought federal penalties that would double the price of imported Chinese coke.

Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel has posted dismal financial results this year. The Lackawanna coke ovens are among the last remnants of Bethlehem's once-dominant presence in the city.

"The city of Lackawanna is very concerned about losing more jobs and so are we," Smith said.

When Bethlehem Steel made its announcement in July, it said it would take a $40 million charge in the third quarter to account for continuing benefits for eligible employees. The company also said that 70 percent of the employees were eligible for early retirement benefits.

In a move unrelated to the Lackawanna site talks, Bethlehem Steel on Monday named Robert S. "Steve" Miller Jr. as its new chairman and chief executive officer. Duane R. Dunham, who had held those titles, will continue as president and chief operating officer.

Miller, 59, a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, served 12 years at Chrysler as director, chief financial officer and vice chairman. Miller led financial negotiations with bank lenders and the federal government leading to the Chrysler bailout package. Before that, he spent 11 years at Ford Motor Co.

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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