The steel story

It's been part of the Illawarra landscape for decades, but what actually goes on inside the steelworks?
Journalist Glen Humphries and photographer Sylvia Liber explore the areas off-limits to the public.

Most people know the steelworks at Port Kembla is a big place.
We know how long it takes to drive past it along Springhill and Five Islands roads.

We can see it dominating most vistas of the Illawarra looking towards the south.

But it’s not until you really start paying attention to it that you realise just how big it really is.

BlueScope’s Port Kembla steelworks sits on 760 hectares – but even that doesn’t really explain it.

The coke ovens. Pictures: Sylvia Liber

The coke ovens. Pictures: Sylvia Liber

In the oft-used area measurement of football fields, you could fit more than 700 of them inside the steelworks.

The steelworks is also bigger than most new housing estates – it's more than twice the size of Shell Cove.

It’s even bigger than many suburbs in the Illawarra – it’s said it’s big enough to deserve its own postcode.

Which would make a degree of sense, as on some levels the steelworks is a suburb in its own right.

The streets inside the plant are all named – Ladle Road, Iron Ore Road, Tin Mill Road. And they’re all visible on Google Maps, though you can’t click on them and “drive” through.
They even have street signs, just like in your own neighbourhood.

And it has its own train station – Lysaghts – which anyone could get off at but without a steelworks security pass you won’t be getting through the gates.

But not that many people get off there these days – not like in the pre-1980s heyday when hundreds would ride the rails into the steelworks.

The buildings are big too – some are more than nine storeys high which give the vertigo-challenged cause for concern when climbing the outside stairs – while others are a kilometre long.

But the strange thing is, for something that is so big, that takes up so much space, many people don’t really have much of an idea of what happens inside the steelworks gates.

Yes, they make steel but an answer like that doesn’t do justice to the effort or the steps it takes to finish up with that Colorbond roof or fence you’ve got at home.

For the past two months, I’ve been visiting the steelworks, following the path of steel from the huge ships that dock at BlueScope’s wharves laden with raw material to the end product of your Colorbond, or perhaps steel plate bound for other parts – maybe even a ship or submarine for the military.

The trips have been in two-hour stints – because the steelworks is so big tracing the path of steelmaking from start to finish in one go would be exhausting.

So we broke it up in stages. But still, the steelworks is so big each of those two-hour visits is barely enough to cover just one stop in steel’s journey.

That journey starts at the wharves and rail yards, where the ingredients to make iron, and not steel, arrive.
Iron ore, coal, limestone and other items arrive to be transformed into something else in the early stages of steel making.

The coal gets superheated in giant vertical ovens that resemble toasters on their sides, where it’s turned into coke.
The limestone is heated and crushed in a giant rotating tube on site, and turned into lime, which joins the smaller pieces of iron ore and gets turned into a product called sinter – which looks uncannily like the bitumen they used to surface roads.

These ingredients then meet up – often via a series of underground conveyor belts – with the larger chunks of iron ore at the blast furnace.

This 90-metre structure takes all the bits and pieces at the top and turns them into 1500 degree Celsius molten iron via a spectacular fireworks-like display.

The display impressed Jimmy Barnes so much that he decided to shoot the music video for his hit single Working Class Man there.

To get that molten iron out of the bottom of the blast furnace, a hole is drilled right in the side of the furnace and later resealed with clay.

Given the furnace runs non-stop 24-7, that means the furnace gets a lot of holes drilled into it.

After the blast furnace we progress to actually making steel, with the molten iron mixed with scrap steel (yep, they use old steel to make new steel) in a giant pot that gets heated with the help of oxygen shot in at more than twice the speed of sound.

The next stage includes some surprising ingredients – rice hulls and nail chips (the bits that get shaved off when they make the pointy end of nails).

These items are used in turning the molten steel into slabs as long as 13 metres and weighing as much as 20 tonnes.

As to how they’re used, well, you’ll have to wait until the Mercury’s steel series reaches the slab caster – should be about four or five weeks away.

Those massive slabs are carried – two at a time – by crane onto a rail car called a rake and then taken to what is called the slab yard even though there are actually four of them.

Ross Schuback on top of one of the coke oven batteries. That's not smoke billowing from it but steam from the water used to cool the red-hot coke.

Ross Schuback on top of one of the coke oven batteries. That's not smoke billowing from it but steam from the water used to cool the red-hot coke.

There the slabs sit open to the elements until they head to either the plate or hot strip mill.

The latter will roll out the slab to as much as a kilometre before being rolled up and heading over to the Springhill plant to get coated and become that thing we know as Colorbond.

The plate mill flattens out the slab but doesn’t roll it up, instead leaving it at whatever thickness is required by the customer.

While the public doesn't get to see the whole box and dice at BlueScope – that sort of tour would take days – they can hitch a ride with Australia's Industry World.

It’s a tour that will give people a bit of an idea of what goes on behind the gates of the steelworks at Port Kembla.

And it might also show them just how big the place is.

The Mercury’s steel series will run once a week starting on Monday with a visit to the two wharves within BlueScope that take in large ships with bellies full of raw materials.