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Osceola steel mill on track, exec says

Big River plans to build this year

By Michael Wickline

This article was published September 26, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.

WEST MEMPHIS - Big River Steel LLC is still on track to break ground on its proposed $1.1 billion steel mill near Osceola by the end of this year unless unforeseen delays arise, company executives told lawmakers Wednesday.

“We don’t see showstoppers out there, but when you have rabble-rousers hiding in the weeds, that can tend to slow things down, cost us extra time and money and takes our attention away from what we would like otherwise to focus on,” David Stickler, a member of the Big River Steel board of directors, told about two dozen lawmakers attending a joint meeting of the House and Senate Insurance and Commerce committees and the Joint Energy Committee.

“We will know in the next 60 or 90 days if there is going to be hurdles that delay the project and … right now, we don’t see any,” he said.

Stickler said he and John Correnti, Big River Steel’s chief executive officer, often compare the Big River Steel project to a puzzle.

“All of the pieces of the puzzle have to fit together, and they all have to fit together at the same time, which is at the closing table,” he said. “If there are groups that are out there that continue to oppose the project,either overtly or covertly, that could draw out the transaction closing process.”

Correnti said the steel mill will employ 550 workers with an average annual salary of $75,000, after bonuses, and construction will create about 2,000 jobs.

Earlier this year, the Legislature authorized a $125 million bond issue and tax incentives for the project over the opposition of Nucor Corp., which maintains that the presence of a third steel mill in Mississippi County might force it to reduce its workforce.

Nucor operates two steel mills near Blytheville in Mississippi County - Nucor Steel Arkansas and Nucor-Yamato, a joint venture with Japanese company Yamato Kogyo Corp.

Correnti said Big River Steel “crossed another big hurdle” with the issuance of the air and construction permits last week.

“We are inside the 10-yard line, guys. It is never done until you cross the goal line. Let’s knock on wood that nobody fumbles the ball, and I don’t think they will,” he said.

Correnti said Teresa Marks, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, “had a lot of pullback on that [air] permit, and they were extra, extra, extra careful that they crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s so if it does get challenged, they are standing on pretty firm ground on the deal.”

Nucor made 47 objections to the filing of the air permit.

After Wednesday’s legislative committee meeting, a spokesman for the Environmental Quality Department said the department hasn’t been informed about any appeal filed or pending with the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to the air permit approved for Big River Steel.

Anyone who submitted comments on the air permit has 30 days after the Sept. 18 date the department decided to issue it to file an appeal with the commission, said department spokesman Katherine Benenati.

Stickler told lawmakers that company officials “have locked down already close to $800 million of the project cost.

“Our goal is at the closing, the day of groundbreaking, that we have close to 90 percent of the cost either locked down or subject to bid that can be turned into a contract,” he said.

Stickler said Big River Steel“had an outstanding interest from various groups interested in providing contracting services to the project and providing technology to the project” and plans to hold seminars Oct. 16 in Little Rock and Oct. 23 in Blytheville to explain how it selects its vendors and contractors.

“We have our commitment with the governor that we will look to spend no less than $200 million funds locally throughout the state of Arkansas as we move forward with this project,” he said. “I think it is relatively safe to say that we’ll exceed that by a fair margin.”

A few members of the Legislative Black Caucus asked about the expected diversity of the steel mill’s workforce and where the mill’s management would reside.

Correnti said he would be disappointed if the workforce at the steel mill “did not reflect the percentage of minorities, women, etc. that [are] in northeast Arkansas.

“Our managers and our head people will live in northeast Arkansas,” he said in remarks that drew scattered applause from lawmakers. “A couple of them may end living in Jonesboro, but they are not going to live in Missouri or Tennessee.”

Business, Pages 25 on 09/26/2013

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