Once Belgium was the second largest steel producer in the world. It came to a grinding halt when a global financial crisis broke out in 2007, lasting until 2011. The worldwide demand for steel was low and the production abundant. Many steel factories weren’t profitable anymore, even with very low wages for the workers. More than half of the blast furnaces were shut down. In most cases this was meant to be temporary, the factories would be maintained so they could be restarted as soon as the crisis years were over. In reality most of them never restarted, maintenance was stopped and the factories started to detoriate. Much of the steel production moved to ‘cheaper’ Asian countries. In the Walloon region, all blast furnaces are now out of use. Needless to say, many workers lost their job and the increase of poverty in the region is obvious.

HF B (Haut Fourneau B / Blast Furnace B), once a huge factory with the oldest parts dating back to 1809, was briefly restarted in 2010, only to be shut down again in 2011. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine that it once was part of the primary metal producing company in Belgium. Bij 1914 eight blast furnaces were producing 500,000 tonnes of steel per year. Then World War 1 broke out and a lot of damage was done to the plant. Only two blast furnaces were rebuilt and taken back into use after the war. Production at HF B lasted until the spring of 2009. 


The visit was like a walk in the park; the entire site was surrounded by fences with razorwire but at a point an entire section of the fence was taken out, so we simply walked in. All doors of the buildings were forced open. Soon it became apparent why; traces of copper theft everywhere and we even bumped into a few small groups of copper thieves in action. We just smiled and greeted, it’s a bit odd walking with your expensive photo gear between shabby guys scraping together some copper wiring for a few bucks. Luckily they weren’t hostile and we even chatted a bit. They could very well be former steel workers, now without a job and trying to make ends meet. The climax of our visit was climbing the circa 80 meters high blast furnace, though my slight fear of heights was getting the best of me here. The grate stairs were so old and rusty that I really felt like I was risking my life on them, but my buddies were going over them quite easily so I kept telling myself that it must be fine. The last and most scary section was a flight of stairs circling around a huge pipe of the blast furnace. There I was, about 70 meters from the ground on a suspended spiral staircase looking down through the grate steps at the now suddenly very tiny buildings underneath me. I had bad muscular pain in my legs from the tension for days afterwards.