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Indiana often ranks in the middle of the pack on metrics such as economy, education and child well-being, and near the bottom in others like median income and infant mortality.

But there's one area where Indiana always excels, thanks largely to hard-working men and women in mill greens across the Region.

Indiana again ranked No. 1 nationally in steel production in 2017. The Hoosier state has cranked out more steel coil than any other state for more than three decades.

"In 2017, Indiana was the leading raw steel producing state with 24.1 million net tons," American Iron and Steel Institute spokesman Jacob Murphy said. "Indiana has been the No. 1 steel producing state since 1982."

The domestic industry has faced increased pressure in recent years, prompting last week's announcement of expanded tariffs. Indiana made about 300,000 fewer tons of steel last year than the 24.4 million tons it produced in 2016. But the state still accounted for nearly 27 percent of the nation's steel last year, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

The Hoosier state has more than 20,000 steelworkers and nearly a quarter of all the steelmaking capacity in the United States. Half the blast furnaces in the country are located in Lake and Porter counties, which boast a wealth of steelmaking assets.

The Region is home to the nation's largest steel mill, Gary Works, North America's largest integrated steelmaking complex; ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago; and the newest integrated steel mill in the country, ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor.

"Indiana's major steel producers have the advantage of being located on Lake Michigan providing for easy access to the massive amounts of raw materials needed to make steel through the integrated process," said Robert Meyer, a fourth-generation steelworker who served as president of The NWI Steel Heritage Museum Project.

The mills along the Lake Michigan lakefront crank out metal for cars, appliances, buildings, bridges, road signs, soup cans, coffee cans and countless more products.

Fort Wayne-based Steel Dynamics also is one of the nation's largest producers of steel, and operates several electric arc furnaces across the state. Nucor Steel also operates a mini-mill in downstate Crawfordsville.

Steel mills have ringed Lake Michigan for more than a century, but Indiana overtook Pennsylvania as the national leader in steel production after the doldrums of the 1970s, when America’s once-globally dominant industry underwent a major contraction. Pennsylvania went from making 26 million tons in 1979 to only 10 million in 1982.

Many of the mills in and around Pittsburgh shuttered, but Northwest Indiana’s hulking steel mills survived because the Great Lakes ports offered easy access to iron ore mined in Minnesota and Michigan.

"Two things really affect the location of a steel mill — the availability of the raw material and where the customers are," said longtime steel industry analyst Charles Bradford with New York City-based Bradford Research Inc. "Steel is very expensive to ship. Indiana Harbor in particular is an advantage because it's a direct run to the iron ore mines in Minnesota and Michigan. It makes it cheap to move the iron ore. Iron ore wasn't as close to the old integrated mills in Pittsburgh. Now they're pretty much gone. They couldn't be justified."

The Region also was strategically located near the end users of steel products, including automotive factories in Michigan, Ohio and downstate Indiana, as well as manufacturers of refrigerators and appliances across the Midwest.

"There's a strong market for steel in the Midwest," he said. "But a lot of the automakers are now in the South, which is why that's where they're building newer mills like Big River (in Arkansas)."

Northwest Indiana's integrated mills retain an advantage because they're able to produce higher automotive grades of steel, something the mini-mills in the South have not been able to crack despite their ongoing efforts, Bradford said.

"There's a definite place for integrated mills, at least now," he said. "But if the electric arc furnaces ever do start producing automotive grades, it will really put the people in Indiana and Michigan on their toes."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.