Steel importers are winning most of their requests for tariff exclusions for products they say they can’t find in the U.S., but the process is riddled with inconsistencies and frequent procedural changes, according to manufacturers and importers.
The Commerce Department as of Dec. 17 granted about 75% of the 19,000 requests it processed to exclude products from tariffs on foreign steel that took effect in March, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of those applications. Exclusions issued so far cover 3.8 million tons of steel, or about 16% of the finished foreign steel entering the U.S. through 11 months of 2018.
In cases the department rejected, a U.S. metal producer often objected. More than 15,000 objections also have been filed on some 9,000 still-pending exclusion requests. Most of these objections were filed by five steel companies: Nucor Corp., United States Steel Corp., AK Steel Holding Corp., TimkenSteel Corp. and Webco Industries Inc.
In many cases, those producers say, the Commerce Department should reject the request because their company makes products analogous or identical to those an importer wants to buy abroad.
“We are willing and able to support substantial proportions of increased domestic demand for many steel products,” U.S. Steel said in a statement. The company restarted steelmaking furnaces at an Illinois mill earlier this year and is refurbishing equipment at other plants as a result of rising steel demand and higher steel prices caused by the tariff.
The Commerce Department said it is revising its exclusion-request process to reach decisions more quickly. The department’s Bureau of Industry and Security introduced a rebuttal period in September for companies that said some rejections seemed arbitrary.
“The department has been treating each exclusion request and objection in a fair and equitable way,” the bureau said. The Commerce Department didn’t respond to specific comments from companies that have filed exclusion requests or objections.
Manufacturers and other importers say some of their exclusion requests are still being rejected for reasons that aren’t fully explained to them.
Primrose Alloys Inc., a California-based importer of stainless-steel pipe, has had about half of its 474 exclusion requests denied. In some of those cases, Primrose President Bob Wren said, a competitor was granted an exclusion to import products nearly identical to those that his company had sought to buy tariff-free.
“None of it makes any sense,” Mr. Wren said.
U.S. Metals, a pipe-and-fitting supplier, said its exclusion requests faced resistance from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency advised the Commerce Department to exclude requests for products that officials said didn’t match up properly with the complex system of codes the government uses to categorize imports.
Steve Tralie, vice president of the Houston-based company, said competitors have been granted exclusions for similar products.
“We’re just saying make it fair,” Mr. Tralie said.
Amanda Pitts, who is managing the exclusion process for U.S. Metals, has secured just seven of the 355 applications she has filed. She said the Commerce Department hasn’t explained in detail why most of her requests were rejected.
“The whole process is a nightmare,” she said.
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press A driver chained a roll of steel to a flatbed truck at the Nucor Steel Gallatin plant in Ghent, Ky.
The Commerce Department has reversed some decisions. It reversed 518 denials in December, including some of the U.S. Metals requests that U.S. Customs and Border Protection had opposed.
Tin-coated sheet steel, used to make food cans, is one product where some companies have won exclusions for their imports while others have been rejected. U.S. production of tin has been falling for years. Can makers say foreign tin is often better quality.
But domestic steel producers, led by ArcelorMittal NV and U.S. Steel, still account for about 60% of the nation’s tin market. They accounted for nearly all the objections to the tariff exclusion requests from U.S. can makers since the tariff took effect.
U.S. Steel wouldn’t comment on its tin business. ArcelorMittal has committed $20.2 million to improve the quality and efficiency of its tin coating operations at its Weirton, W.V., mill, a company spokeswoman, Mary Beth Holdford, said.
Two can makers, Independent Can Co. in Maryland and Colorado-based Ball Corp., have received exclusions for nearly all of their requests that have been processed so far. Meanwhile, Can Corp. of America Inc. in Pennsylvania and Silgan Holdings Inc. in Connecticut had almost all their tin exclusion requests denied.
Independent Can Chief Executive Richard Huether said he and his competitors have shifted tin purchases to foreign suppliers because of declining quality and service from domestic steel mills. He said the unpredictable nature of the exclusion process was further undermining his confidence in U.S. tin producers.
“The industry is being damaged by doubt and uncertainty,” he said.
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