The holidays bring traditions; for some, those include watching the yuletide classic, A Christmas Story. As all Clevelanders know, much of the film was shot here in our city. In fact, the house of little Ralphie and the rest of the Parker family — at which the famous leg-lamp and shootout scenes were recorded — is located in a hip, reincarnated Cleveland neighborhood called Tremont. Now a museum, the 1895 wood-frame dwelling is open year-round for tours.
Roughly 1,200 feet from this famous house, down a hill and on the western bank of the mighty Cuyahoga River, is the city's largest steel mill still in operation. Though not nearly as cute as the Christmas Story home, the mill does warm the hearts of some, though not all, Clevelanders. Those who live miles away, like me, generally view it as a diminished but positive force in our local economy — and an enduring part of our region's history and spirit. Part of my fondness for the plant stems from the fact that my grandfather, a blacksmith in what was affectionately termed the Old Country, worked there from the 1950s to the 70s, when it was called Republic Steel.
However, some who live in Tremont, particularly close to the mill, complain of pollution; more active opponents drive an ongoing campaign called Mittal Steel, Clean Up for Real. The agency's complaints are corroborated by documentation readily available at the Right to Know website of the nonprofit organization, OMB Watch — a group founded in 1983 to track the White House Office of Management and Budget. The website is at rtknet.org/db/tri if you're interested in the pollution statistics of your own community.
Modern scrubbers and controls are successfully utilized in steel plants worldwide to cut pollution, but the Cleveland mill has been upgraded with few of these devices. Causing the lag may be foreign ownership: The mill is part of ArcelorMittal, the private property of billionaire Lakshmi Narayan Mittal, who lives in London. With such distant management, it's understandable that the facility here remains outdated, and complaints about it persist unaddressed. With jobs at the massive plant cut tenfold from their glory-day numbers, it's also unsurprising that few local families feel allegiance to the place.
Before ArcelorMittal, the mill was held by International Steel Group, a conglomerate of plants cobbled together by Wilbur L. Ross. That group's sale raised $2.5 billion; with it went our mill, plus Bethlehem Steel and others; Ross personally made $300 million from the deal. ISG greatly benefitted from steel tariffs imposed by President Bush in 2002; initial purchase terms also treated plants as liquidated assets, which relieved ISG from the heavy burden of pension obligations.
Before that, from 1984 to 2002, the mill was owned by James Ling's Ling-Temco-Vought, or LTV Corp. By the time our Cleveland mill was purchased by LTV, that company was already on the verge of liquidating other assets and (strangely enough) bankruptcy. In fact, LTV's aggressive leveraging made it a dubious financial pioneer, as the first to issue high-risk (or junk) bonds.
It's tempting to say that before LTV, the mill was “just” Republic Steel, pure in its core mission of outputting the most useful alloy on earth, unsullied by business issues. The truth is that the industry was tumultuous even in its heyday. My grandfather had numerous tales of plant layoffs, uncertainties; hard labor in unbearable heat; and my grandmother's daily toil — washing heavy soot from his work overalls. The mill was dirty even then, perhaps dirtier; in peril, even then. Perhaps I only perceive the mill's yesteryear problems as somehow simpler — like the world of A Christmas Story.
May you find your own problems quaint this holiday season.