Yesterday I went to hell. On a train.
I witnessed the birth of steel plate of the type that will be used to build our ships.
In a dark, dangerous, filthy, oily, searing hot, screaming loud cathedral of a place. Molten steel rolled at shocking speed, emitting tornadoes of steam. Standing in full protective gear on a gantry above red-hot steel plate - an image burned into my psyche forever. A truly extraordinary experience.
And yet day in day out guys in full woollen suits (wool being the best fire retardant material - thanks sheep!) operate, perform and deliver in that dehumanised inferno. Making the steel that never satiates our lust for stuff.
The safety gear gave me a weird sense of detachment - hard hat, glasses, ear plugs, gloves, boots. I was there, but only partially so. Maybe that’s how a steel worker survives that place.
Much of the steel made in Scunthorpe is used in infrastructural projects. Train lines, ship building, bridge supports, bomb proof barriers. And yet walking from my hotel to the plant in the morning the infrastructure in sunny (and it was) Scunny was collapsing. The ‘pavements’ were off-road hiking courses. Empty houses, deserted streets.
In 1972 26 000 people were employed in Scunny. Now it’s 4000 as a result of the Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) process which maximises economic efficiency.
How do 22000 people evaporate? The wonderful man, Ron Wilkins (get to his Open Garden this weekend if you can), our guide, has worked at Scunny for more than 40 years. At the outset of his career most of his family worked at the plant. Now it’s only him. His kids live elsewhere, where they can find work. Our communities break down.
Approaching the Tata Steel site I was struck by the scale. I learned that the Romans had established a mine on this site. Geography had gifted the place and just down t’road in Yorkshire in the Wolds limestone could be mined to make steel.
The process became commercialised in 1860 - by relations of David Cameron.
Now it’s epic. A site with a 15 mile boundary enclosing mountains of steaming slag, piles of virgin ore, heaps of scrap for reprocessing (the content of our ships’ steel plate at the outset will be 20% recycled), caterpillar trucks the size of houses, cooling towers and furnaces and rolling mills as far as the eye could see.
The good people we met do what they can - within the constraints of a profit-only paradigm - to re-use and recycle. Carbon monoxide is reused to produce energy. 1 million trees have been planted. Kingfishers flash across reclaimed mines and water sources. Dust is swept up (on an epic scale) and ore deposits re-used. A project to make the site energy self-sustaining was shelved because of the economic downturn.
The people we met at Tata Steel are proud - rightly so - of what they make and the human endeavour and ingenuity they deploy every hour to produce this great stuff.
We talked of them helping us build the flagships of the future, of bringing that abundance of human ingenuity to bear on the mega-problems facing our world today through collaboration and a re-engineered intention.
It is simply not possible to get 100% recycled steel to build ships today. But we can embark on an urgent journey together to make it possible before it’s too late.
And there growing on the slag was part of the answer. Vipers Bugloss reclaiming the land. In that most hostile of environments. How do they do it? Adapt.
Those plants ...nerves of steel!