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Economy: Steel mill closing will impact port dredging plans

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The announcement last week by ArcelorMittal that it will close its Georgetown steel mill by Sept. 30 has thrown a cloud of uncertainty over proposals to dredge the Georgetown harbor and revive the port.

With the harbor channel silted in, the steel manufacturer was shipping goods through Wilmington, N.C.

Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said the mill’s resumption of raw material shipments through the port was part of anticipated tonnage growth that would push the port past the million-ton mark necessary for federal dredging funds.

“Now the uncertainty is what will replace the steel mill,” Hemingway said. “Until we know what that may be, you just don’t know what that volume will be.”

Hemingway said the county’s commitment to port dredging was not contingent solely on steel mill shipments. “The anticipation was there’s enough cargo out there that meets the definition of locale and depth to move us into 1.5 million tons without being specific to one company,” he said.

County voters approved an additional 1 cent sales tax with a top priority of raising $6 million to dredge the port and bring jobs to Georgetown.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice said he’s looking into the impact the mill’s closing will have on federal dredging funds. His immediate concern was for the 226 employees losing their jobs because of unfair imports. “Closures like this prove that enforceable trade standards are vital to American jobs and our ability to compete in the world,” Rice said.

The mill, formerly Georgetown Steel, began operations in the late 1960s, when it was built by the Korf Co. of Germany. It grew to be the city’s largest employer at one point, peaking in the 1970s at around 1,500 workers.

ArcelorMittal previously shut down the Georgetown operation in 2009, following the last economic recession. It reopened in early 2011 after negotiating pay cuts and other cost-saving measures with employees.

“Despite our joint efforts and a highly productive workforce, the facility has incurred significant losses since the restart due to high input costs and imports,” said P.S. Venkat, CEO of ArcelorMittal Long Carbon North America. “Georgetown is a very productive plant, making 300,000 tons of product per year with fewer than 200 full-time ArcelorMittal employees — that’s about 1,500 tons per worker. Imports have really been damaging to the Georgetown facility.”

Mayor Jack Scoville said the state Department of Commerce plans to contact possible purchasers.

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