The government of South Chungcheong Province decided last week to suspend a blast furnace at a Hyundai Steel plant in Dangjin for 10 days.
It cited that the plant has emitted pollutants by opening a safety valve -- called bleeder valve -- when it conducted maintenance work on the furnace.
The decision will take effect on July 15. Hyundai Steel is considering filing a petition for an injunction.
The provincial governments of North Gyeongsang and South Jeolla also recently notified Posco’s Pohang and Gwangyang Steelworks, respectively, of their decision to suspend one of their furnaces for 10 days for the same reason.
Posco has raised objections and the provinces have started procedures to hold hearings.
If the local governments impose sanctions this way, all of their 12 furnaces -- Posco operates nine and Hyundai Steel three -- may have to be suspended.
If it is true that the plants violated related laws, they should be punished accordingly. But the decisions went too far in that they can inflict hard-to-recover damage to the plants.
According to the local steel industry, furnace operations must not be suspended for more than four days. If it is stopped for more than four days, its internal temperature will drop and molten metal in the furnace will be solidified. It may take three months to remove it and restart the furnace. In the worst case, the furnace may become useless, and it takes 24 months to build a new one.
Hyundai Steel expects to suffer a revenue loss of 800 billion won ($678 million) due to a three-month suspension of the furnace at its Dangjin plant. If a furnace is closed for months, it will cause wide-ranging effects. Shipbuilding and automobile industries, among others, will be hit hard.
To maintain a furnace, a steel mill stops producing molten metal and injects steam into it. At this time, its internal pressure rises sharply, escalating the risk of explosion. To prevent explosion, the bleeder valve is opened to release air and reduce pressure. The valve is opened twice a month and for up to one hour at a time.
According to the steel industry, carbon monoxide and dust are discharged from the furnace for the first five minutes or so when the safety valve is opened for an hour. Then the injected steam escapes the furnace. Most of what gets out of a bleeding furnace is steam, and steel mills argue pollutants emitted together with steam are negligible. A precise measurement of pollutants is needed.
The problem is that opening the air release valve is the only way now to maintain a furnace. The Korea Iron & Steel Association recently inquired the World Steel Association about the method, and reportedly received an answer to the effect that steel mills all over the world use the safety valve in a similar way and that there is no alternative technology yet. In this situation, repetition of sanctions will be inevitable even after they are over.
If the method is regarded as a problem in South Korea alone, the country’s steel industry will lose its standing globally.
The World Steel Association does not raise issue with the use of the valve, and Korean steel mills have operated bleeder valves routinely for decades. However, local environmental groups have raised concerns about the method, and provincial governments have rushed to decisions.
If the emission of pollutants from furnaces becomes a public concern, the authorities should have waited for the measurement of pollutants before making a decision. The results of related measurements by an environment research institute have not been released yet.
Criticisms by environmental and civic groups need to be heard, but government steps must be strictly fair.
Foreign countries do not raise issue with the maintenance method. Local environmental regulations against the steel industry may well follow global trends.
Industrial sites must heed safety and pollution prevention, but excessive and hasty sanctions are as good as burning a house to get rid of bedbugs.