Among the things President Biden pledged during his trip to Baltimore to see the wreckage from the Francis Scott Key Bridge were moving “heaven and earth to rebuild this bridge as rapidly as humanly possible” and using “American steel.”

Baltimore has a history as a giant in the steel industry; Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Mill, just south of the Key Bridge on the Patapsco River, was once the largest mill in the world, but it has been gone for years. So is it still possible to use U.S. steel?

The short answer is yes. And it’s not just possible — it’s likely.

Many U.S. bridges are built with American-made steel. That is due to factors including supply, timing and trade barriers, according to several experts in steel, construction, engineering and supply chains.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“If you have any federal dollars, which almost every bridge today has, there are ‘buy American’ provisions,” said Charles J. Carter, president of the American Institute of Steel Construction, a trade association and technical adviser to the steel design and construction industry.

“That limits sourcing of materials to domestic production,” he said.

Carter and others said the Key Bridge’s replacement is likely to be a different design to allow for a wider shipping channel beneath it and more protections. Instead of the truss design, one prospect is a so-called cable-stayed design that uses cables attached to towers above the roadway.

Costs, amounts and suppliers have yet to be determined, though Biden also said the federal government would fund construction and seek to recoup money from insurance and the shipping companies.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But it’s clear that the thousands of tons of steel — including rebar, high-strength fasteners, structural steel and heavy plate steel — will not come from Baltimore. That is, except for any amount that makes its way into the stream from salvaged Key Bridge parts. That steel will likely be sold as scrap, shredded, melted and turned into new steel, according the Steel Manufacturers Association.

The original steel for the Key Bridge came from Pittsburgh, not Baltimore.

“Nearly all people assume, wrongly, that Sparrows Point made the steel beams for the original Key Bridge,” said Mark Reutter, a journalist, lecturer and author of “Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might.”

He said Sparrows Point didn’t make beams and structural steel, except for plates mostly used for ship building. Its specialties, he said, were sheet steel used in cars and appliances, pipe used by the oil industry and tinplate made into cans.

The heavy structural steel manufactured by Bethlehem Steel was manufactured at its South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, plant. Reutter said it supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, among others, before dropping out of the bridge business.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reutter said it’s possible the new bridge steel will be brought by boat to the terminal at Tradepoint Atlantic, a large logistics center now operating on the Sparrows Point footprint.

There is plenty of steel made elsewhere in the country to go to a new Key Bridge, said Tinglong Dai, a professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

“Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. continues to produce steel and is quite good at meeting domestic demand,” Dai said in an email.

“Today, thanks to their supply chain advantages and trade barriers imposed by the federal government, U.S. mills provide up to 90% of domestic steel consumption,” he said. “Therefore, the commitment to rebuild the Key Bridge with American steel is not unrealistic. In fact, I’d say it is quite achievable.”

He pointed to a recent Congressional report that showed the United States as ranked the world’s fourth-largest steel-producing country, based on 2020 volume. It was also the second-largest steel importer and 20th-largest steel exporter.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Some experts pointed to Charlotte, North Carolina-based Nucor Corp., the largest steel producer and recycler in the country, as a possible supplier for the replacement bridge. Officials there said it’s a major supplier of steel plate, the biggest type of steel steel bridge construction, and one of the plate mills is in Hertford County, North Carolina, about 4.5 hours from Key Bridge.

It’s possible steel used in the new bridge will be a combination of products from the United States and China or other countries, depending on costs and timing, said Robert Pond, an affiliate professor and past chair of the engineering science department at Loyola University Maryland.

He said it would be hard to know how much recycled steel from the bridge ends up back in the bridge, as it could end up in a host of other products, including automobiles.

The vast majority of steel used today is recycled, said Philip K. Bell, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association.

There’s “plenty of sustainable steelmaking capacity,” he said in an email, “within a 500-mile radius of Baltimore. They can make the steel with short lead times.”

Work on a new Key Bridge can begin once the collapsed bridge is cleared from the channel, work that is in progress.

Meredith Cohn is a health and medicine reporter for The Baltimore Banner, covering the latest research, public health developments and other news. She has been covering the beat in Baltimore for more than two decades.

More From The Banner