Grad's career is turning steel plant green
By Jill Williams
Approaching the U.S. Steel Gary Works plant can be intimidating. Surrounded by an impressive steel fence, the 3,000-acre plant bustles with activity. And keep an eye out for giant equipment like the slab carrier! Its wheels alone are taller than a full-sized pickup truck. Purdue graduate Julie Smock's advice: always give them the right of way.
Photo by Jill Williams
Julie Smock, a 2006 natural resources and environmental sciences graduate, developed four test sites that grow plants in slag, a byproduct of steelmaking, at the U.S. Steel Gary Works facility.
Despite this imposing appearance, there is also something blossoming at Gary Works. In fact, the plant has four landscaped sites that are home to honey locust trees, Austrian pines, and other flowering plants. This more inviting look is part of Smock's job responsibilities. "I've been girling up the place," she said.
Smock, who earned a bachelor's degree in natural resources and environmental sciences in 2006, is currently the government and regulatory reporting manager for Gary Works. Her first lead project was to develop test sites at the plant to grow vegetation in slag.
Slag is a byproduct of the steelmaking process that comes in several forms and is comparable to rocks, gravel or sand. However, slag lacks the nutrients of soil that plants need to grow and survive. Slag is currently used in cement and concrete mixtures, but that has not stopped Gary Works from accumulating a large volume of it throughout the facility.
Smock's "Green Up/Clean Up" project was inspired by the plant management's desire to develop new methods for recycling slag.
Being a project manager, Smock had to learn who to turn to for information as well as how to manage, plan and budget accordingly. "More importantly, I had to show results," Smock said.
And she got results right away. During the first season of the project, Smock transformed the test sites from drab gravel lots into beautifully landscaped areas. Now, hawthorn and serviceberry blossoms highlight pedestrian walkways for the plant employees while juniper and Austrian pine trees stand impressive and dominant in the green areas. Smock said she has received nothing but compliments about her project. In fact, many of her co-workers told her they couldn't believe grass could grow in some of the areas at the facility. As a sign of their appreciation, Smock's co-workers even presented her with a comical gift, a picture of a flower with the inscription, "The little Smock that sprung from the broken Earth."
Greening up Gary Works has provided more than just an eye-appealing workplace. It also helped create a safer environment for employees. Smock said that the green areas help reduce the amount of dust in the air, which can cause serious issues if not controlled. Absorbing the dust keeps roadways clean throughout the plant and increases visibility, making travel safer.
Smock's project is still growing strong, and she already has plans for spring projects. She plans to take a large gravel lot near her office building and transform it into a mixed pasture and prairie. She also will develop one of the plant entrances into a green area and add greenery to several other locations. "I want to continue on this [project] and green up the entire facility," she said.
Smock's efforts for greening up Gary Works helped other U.S. Steel plants begin their own projects. She said that her presentations of the project have given useful advice to colleagues at the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works facility in Pennsylvania. Looking at her results so far, one could say that Smock's career (and the Gary Works grounds) have really blossomed.