NORTH LITTLE ROCK — A planned $1.2 billion steel mill planned for northeast Arkansas cleared an important hurdle Friday with a state regulatory panel’s approval of its air quality permit.
Big River Steel had a lengthy fight for the permit for the Osceola plant, with a competitor, Nucor Steel in Blytheville, filing multiple objections along the way.
Blytheville and Osceola are both in Mississippi County.
John Correnti, chief executive officer of Big River Steel, said investors in Germany should give the go-ahead now that the company has the environmental permit and said construction might start in June.
Correnti said Friday that the plant would employ 545 full-time steel workers. But a peak of 2,000 construction workers will be employed over the two years it will take to build the mill. More jobs will accompany the plant, with trucking companies and equipment repair businesses expected to do business nearby.
David R. Taggart, an attorney for Nucor, argued before the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission during a Friday hearing that the plant will not be able to meet emissions limits. He asked that the commission send the permit application back to the Department of Environmental Quality for further review.
“It violates federal law. It’s illegal. (The permit) cannot be issued,” Taggart said.
Taggart denied that Nucor was motivated by keeping a competitor out of its backyard, but Correnti was unswayed.
“This is not about the air quality,” Correnti said. “This is about the competition.”
Last month, an administrative law judge ruled against Nucor’s objections to the permit. The commission on Friday acted in line with that decision.
“This was just an affirmation,” Correnti said.
Correnti used to work for Nucor and took part in developing the company’s Blytheville facilities in the mid-1980s.
He said that Big River Steel will have cutting-edge pollution controls and suggested Nucor doesn’t want to have to spend to match the technology.
“Maybe that’s part of Nucor’s concern, when its permits come up (for renewal),” Correnti said.
Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore called Nucor’s attempt to block the permit a “bogus, desperate, last-ditch effort” to keep out a competitor.
“It’s simply corporate greed,” he said.
Nucor has argued that its concerns are legitimate and expressed fear that emissions from Big River Steel would jeopardize the ability of other businesses in the area to grow while subjecting residents to unnecessary health risks.
Taggart said Nucor’s technology was unproven and that the company’s assessment of how it would perform was unrealistic.
Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality attorney Stuart Spencer said that it was up to Nucor to prove that Big River didn’t meet air quality regulations, which he said it didn’t do.
“Do not be fooled … that the burden rests with anyone but Nucor,” Spencer said. He noted that Nucor raised more than 20 separate objections, all of which were turned away by the administrative law judge after a four-day trial.
The commission voted 13-0 to issue the permit.
Nucor issued a statement later Friday saying it is disappointed that the panel approved the permit.
“We are reviewing the Commission’s decision and our options for appeal going forward. We continue to believe the evidence shows that the (Big River Steel) permit does not meet the requirements of applicable state and federal law, and that permitting for the Big River facility will be detrimental to the existing steelmaking operations in Mississippi County.”
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