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ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor, the largest integrated steel mill in North America, is a behemoth jutting out into Lake Michigan that takes 20 minutes to drive across – longer than it does to cross some entire towns in Northwest Indiana.

It's home to the longest privately owned bridge in the United States and the largest blast furnace. It's so big because it is in fact two steel mills now consolidated under the same management – the sprawling steelmaking complex along the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal spans the former LTV plant to the west and the former Inland Steel mill to the east. 

Though trucks and trains still flow in and out nonstop, much of the massive steel mill in East Chicago that dates back to the 19th century lies vacant or underused. ArcelorMittal Indiana Habor Long Carbon got idled two years ago because of imports, and its electric arc furnace remains cold. Two of the smaller blast furnaces are being torn down and sold for scrap. Vast, cavernous buildings on the west side where steel products were once made have been used mainly for storage for more than a decade. The 84 inch hot strip mill on the west side got shut down last year.

But ArcelorMittal has been investing in major upgrades, as it aims to make its steelmaking assets as productive and profitable as possible.

"Back in the day when I was hired in, the two mills employed 35,000 people and we weren't making much more than people are now," said Wendell Carter, ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor general manager. "Since the financial crisis, there's been a 20-percent increase in productivity of tons per man-hour."

While ArcelorMittal shrunk its footprint in East Chicago, idling or closing finishing lines that were inefficient or unprofitable, it's been investing heavily in its remaining operations there. Last year, Chicago-based ArcelorMittal USA, a subsidiary of the global Luxembourg-based company, boosted its overall capital investment to $280 million, up from $233 million in 2015, spokesman Bill Steers said.

"Our Action 2020 business strategy emphasizes cost-competitiveness with assets running at higher levels of productivity and yield with no loss of volume or market share," he said.

Much of the spending took place in East Chicago. The rusting mill that dates back to the late 1800s now has some of the most recently refurbished steelmaking facilities in the United States making some of the most state-of-the art steel products, including stronger grades of steel for cars. The steelmaker agreed with the United Steelworkers union during the most recent contract negotiations to pump more than $200 million into operations at the mill in East Chicago.

ArcelorMittal spent $60 million installing a new caster in the No. 3 steel shop on the west side. It's now producing a full-range of Martinsite advanced high-strength steels, which automakers are using to make cars lighter and more fuel-efficient.

"There isn't a major vehicle platform without ArcelorMittal steel," Carter said.

ArcelorMittal also invested more than $32 million to rebuild the walking beam furnaces at its 80-inch hot strip mill on the east side, which turns red-hot steel slabs into rolls of coil after cooling the metal off a few hundred degrees by dumping an Olympic pool's worth of water from Lake Michigan on it in the course of a few seconds. Major upgrades to "The Mighty 80," which stretches a half mile long, also include a cooling tower, a coil field expansion and improvements in the motor room, positioning the finishing line to crank out up to 5 million tons of steel annually.

Such investments are needed to make the steel mill more productive and keep up with changes in the marketplace, Carter said.

"With the slabs that go into the modern automobile, more than half of all types of steel in cars today did not exist 10 years ago," he said. "Modern steel is trying to meet the challenge with new types of steel products."

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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.