In Mississippi County, the big news in steel these days is Big River, the massive new project that turned out its first batch of steel this year and has made Osceola a hub of hiring.
But the firmly established player in northeast Arkansas steel is Nucor Corp., the largest steelmaker in the United States, which has a three-decade history in the county and operates four facilities there, employing nearly 1,700 workers.
No. 1: Nucor-Yamato
The first Arkansas venture for publicly traded Nucor, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, was the Nucor-Yamato plant east of Blytheville on the banks of the Mississippi River. The operation, a partnership with Yamato Steel Co. of Japan, has more than 900 workers manufacturing I-beams and other structural steel for construction, including the framework of the Freedom Tower in New York.
The plant, which began production in 1988, is described by the company as the largest structural steel mill in the Western Hemisphere, capable of producing 2.5 million tons per year. The success of the new plant quickly caught the eye of Nucor’s leadership.
“The people you find in the Midwest and mid-South have such a great work ethic,” said Nucor Vice President MaryEmily Slate, who manages two Nucor facilities in the county. “Farmers and kids who grow up on farms have a mechanical instinct that fits in well at our mini-mills. They want to work hard and know how to work hard — have been working hard all their lives.”
Slate repeated a story that has become company lore about how former CEO Kenneth Iverson chose to put plants in isolated sites. “It’s been said that Mr. Iverson would drive until he lost radio reception, and then drive a little farther,” she said. “That’s where he would put the mills.”
Iverson, who died in 2002, revolutionized the American steel industry by dropping the established and expensive blast-furnace technique that dominated in Pittsburgh and instead recycling scrap into steel via smaller, cost-efficient plants he called mini-mills.
Clifton Chitwood, a Mississippi County Industrial Development official, said that Nucor’s high wages and production bonuses, which average nearly $90,000 a year, made for an eager and committed workforce.
No. 2: Hickman
So up went the next Nucor plant, informally called Hickman for the small town it is closest to, only a few miles away from Nucor-Yamato. It employs more than 600 workers, and in 1992 began producing rolled steel, used in everything from automobile undercarriages to lawnmowers. Nucor extended a nearby Burlington Northern railway with about 25 miles of track to reach both plants, according to Chitwood, and steel pipe companies like Tenaris, TMK Ipsco and Atlas placed operations along the line to take free delivery of Nucor products.
Those auxiliary industries employed close to 4,000 people at peak capacity, but the oil-price bust has been hard on pipe suppliers, and operations are running at about one-third capacity at present, Chitwood said. “When the price of gasoline goes up, and I have to think it’s going to, those jobs will start coming back.”
Nucor itself has faced harder times. “It’s been tough because of all the foreign steel dumping that has gone on, but now we are seeing less of that happening,” Slate said, noting that Nucor strongly links workers’ pay with production. “The economy seems to be a bit better.” Nucor’s stock price was up about 20 percent in March as stocks in several American steel companies rallied on news that the U.S. was imposing new duties on Chinese steel imports.
No. 3: Nucor Castrip
The smallest Nucor steel-making facility in Arkansas is Nucor Castrip, employing about 70, which uses a cooling technology that Nucor co-developed to significantly reduce the amount of electric power needed to produce sheet metal.
Traditionally, sheet metal is produced by melting steel and casting it into a slab from 2 to 10 inches thick. After the slab cools, it must then be reheated in a gas-fired furnace and put through a series of rollers to flatten the steel to the desired thickness. In the Castrip process, by contrast, the molten steel is cast directly into the final shape and thickness, without requiring further heating or rolling. The result is an ultrathin strip produced at lower cost to the steelmaker and to the environment.
The Castrip process uses a concept of twin-roll strip casting and represents the first commercial installation of direct casting of carbon steel sheet products, according to the company. The process uses two copper, water-cooled counter-rotating rolls, allowing the steel to be cast at or near its final thickness.
“It’s designed to save 50 to 60 percent of electricity costs, and in recycled-steel mills, electricity is the highest cost for the manufacturers — more than purchasing the material, more than payroll for the workers,” Chitwood said. The Castrip mill began production in 2009, Slate said, and the process is kept closely under wraps. Photography, for example, is forbidden at the Castrip mill.
No. 4: Skyline Steel
The last of Nucor’s Arkansas operations is Skyline Steel LLC in Armorel, with about 45 employees. Acquired by Nucor in 2012, Skyline doesn’t make steel, but rather uses Nucor products to fabricate steel foundations for marine construction, bridge and highway construction and other heavy infrastructure projects.
‘We Won’t Back Down’
Nucor’s plants plus Big River are expected to make Mississippi County the No. 2 county for steel production in the United States, behind Lake County, Indiana, where the city of Gary is a major hub of the United States Steel Corporation.
Privately held Big River turned out its first batch of steel in March at a $1.3 billion plant still being constructed near Osceola.
“I do believe Big River Steel will be a competitor,” Slate said, “but Nucor has never backed down from any competition. The concern is about production capacity in this region. But we are a competitive and efficient company, and we won’t back down.”
Both Nucor and Big River produce their steel by recycling millions of tons of scrap metal from cars, appliances and other discarded metal products.
“Steel is the most recyclable material in the world,” Chitwood said. “That’s the reason you don’t see nearly as many junkyards as you used to. In the old days, there was nothing much you could do with those old junk cars. Now they’re just melted down and made into new cars, or a million other things.”