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Liberty plans to restructure Belgian steel plants; galvanizing line closure expected

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Liberty plans to restructure Belgian steel plants; galvanizing line closure expected

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One galvanizing plant at Liège to continue operation

Tilleur plant reported negotiating new tinplate contract

Liberty Steel Group is planning a possible restructuring of its Belgian steel plants, Liberty Liège's Flemalle and Tilleur, to ensure their sustainable long-term future, a group spokesperson said Sept. 23.

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According to local media reports, this is expected to involve mothballing one of Flémalle's two steel galvanizing lines for an indeterminate period and the lay off of 153 staff, on which negotiations with unions are underway.

Liberty's spokesperson did not confirm details. CSC-Metal, a union involved in the negotiations, made no comment when contacted by S&P Global Platts.

A Liberty statement sent to Platts said: "On Monday morning, the management of LIBERTY Liège-Dudelange informed the works council of Liberty Liège, which comprises two plants in Flémalle and Tilleur, of the main aspects of a possible future organisational structure. This potential new structure has been identified as offering the best long-term future for the company, making it more likely that potential investment will be obtained to support this future. The proposed restructuring project has no impact on the LIBERTY Dudelange site in Luxembourg and LIBERTY Liège-Dudelange customers will continue to be supplied as normal throughout the process."

Sources close to Liberty noted the group's owner GFG Alliance has provided more than Eur40 million ($47 million) in funding to Liberty Liège since its acquisition from steelmaker ArcelorMittal in July 2019, but its investment plans were initially undermined by a very weak steel market in 2019, before the business was negatively impacted by the pandemic.

The situation at Liège was exacerbated by the collapse of Greensill Capital, GFG Alliance's main financier in March, and significant issues with its main hot rolled coil supplier, which impacted the mills' ability to operate at full capacity even when COVID-19 restrictions allowed, according to the sources.

Local reports

La Dernière Heure/Liège news outlet reported Sept. 21 that Liberty plans to mothball the Galva 4 hot dip galvanizing line at Flémalle – which had previously been halted between 2014 and 2018, under ArcelorMittal's ownership.The site's Galva 5 hot dip galvanizing line is expected to continue to operate. The sites affected by the restructuring are only 35%-40% operational, according to the report.

Sud Presse La Meuse, also reported Sept. 21 that Liberty plans to keep open the Tilleur tinplate factory (formerly Ferblatil), citing an accord being struck with Trivium Packaging Group to purchase 130,000 mt/year of tinplate for three years from the plant.

Trivium Packaging, part of global packager the Ardagh Group, did not immediately respond to Platts' request for confirmation of this order.

Both press reports indicated that negotiations between Liberty and the Walloon Region government for its Sogepa investment arm to take a 49% stake in Liberty Liège and put up a Eur37 million loan for the plants' continued operation had not yet been successful. Statements made by the Walloon government, cited in the local press, and other informed sources indicated the government continues interested.

Liberty's intended restructuring of Liberty Liège follows the earlier granting of court protection – under a so-called judicial reorganization procedure requested in April - for both the Liège and Dudelange operations. This initially gave protection from creditors until the end of July and has been extended pending a review by a Liège court, according to informed sources.

As part of a broader group restructuring, announced June 28, Liberty Group merged its Liège, Dudelange and Magona steel works in Italy into its larger Galati integrated steel operation in Romania. On August 5 it was announced that Magona was restarting its cold rolled coil and hot dip galvanized lines, using hot rolled coil supplied by Galati.

Market sources indicate that the need for galvanized material from Liège's Galva 4 line may now be less given Magona's ramp-up, particularly given a recent slight softening of the market.

Platts assessed South European domestic EXW Italy hot dip galvanized coil at Eur1,235/mt Sept. 22, down from a peak of Eur1,322/mt on July 7.

Magona restarting all lines by next week: unions

Liberty Magona is expected to have restarted all its steel production lines from next week, including its pre-painted line number 1 and galvanized line No. 4, Italian steel union sources told Platts Sept. 23. These had stopped rolling coils in June during a cash-squeeze at Liberty Steel Group.

Magona has two pre-painted lines that can produce 100,000 mt/year of painted coils, two hot-dip galvanizing rolling mills with combined capacity of 550,000 mt/year finished products and a pickling line with design capacity of 400,000 mt/year.

Feedstock coils are coming from Liberty Galati and partially also from ArcelorMittal's Fos sur Mer site, one union source said.

"There is a lot of request of coils, so it's good we are going to restart working although the future is still uncertain as Liberty's financial position is not clear yet. It seems to us that the company could get rid of some steel plants," one source said.

Liberty bought Magona in July 2019, together with other mills formerly controlled by ArcelorMittal. These had been put up for sale for anti-trust reasons following ArcelorMittal's acquisition of Italian group Ilva. The plants included ArcelorMittal Ostrava (Czech Republic), ArcelorMittal Galati (Romania), ArcelorMittal Skopje (Macedonia) and ArcelorMittal Dudelange (Luxembourg), as well as the hot dip galv lines 4 and 5 of ArcelorMittal Liege.