Steel company selects local site

After decades of effort, Brownsville’s quest for a steel mill appears to have finally paid off.

Arkansas-based Big River Steel LLC, which had been mulling the Port of Brownsville as the potential site of a $1.6 billion steel plant identical to one it operates in Osceola, Ark., has selected Brownsville, according to port officials.

The development was reflected in a unanimous vote by the Brownsville Navigation District board, during a special meeting Tuesday, to give BRS the option to lease 800 acres between the Brownsville Ship Channel and S.H. 48 on which to build the facility. The BND is the port’s governing body.

“Now all the hard work begins,” said Eddie Campirano, port director and CEO. “This kind of sets the wheels in motion. There’s still a lot of work to be done. A project like this is not going to be easy.”

Still, “they want to be here,” Campirano said.

“They’ve made the decision,” he said. “We have an agreement in hand that says Brownsville’s the place where we’re going to make it happen.”

BRS’s Arkansas “flex steel mill” is the nation’s first LEED-certified steel production facility in the world. Brownsville’s plant would be modeled after it exactly, assuming everything goes according to plan and the project comes to fruition. The Brownsville plant, like the Osceola facility, would support approximately 500 full-time jobs with an average annual salary of $75,000.

Environmental assessment and permitting processes will have to be done before a shovel hits the dirt, and that will take time, Campirano said, adding that it’s too early to know when construction could start.

“Permitting and engineering is Year 1 and 2, typically, and construction is Year 3 and 4,” he said. “You want to get this thing done as soon as you can. The impact on the region is going to be incredible.”

BND Chairman John Wood, after signing the lease-option agreement Tuesday, said construction of the plant would “mean a lot to the community” in addition to the permanent jobs once the plant is operational.

“They’re going to start doing their due diligence and testing the property, and start with all the environmental issues they’ve got to address,” he said. “Hopefully everything goes smoothly, because we’d like to see plant construction start as soon as possible.

“I think they’re going to be real happy with what they find, and we’re going to obviously work with them as closely as possible to make sure that they’re successful, because their success is going to affect the entire Rio GrandeValley.”

Steel makers have eyed Brownsville over the decades, though the area’s inadequate electrical capacity sent them looking elsewhere. That changed with the Cross Valley Project, which was completed in 2016 and delivers an additional 345 kilovolts to Brownsville from Laredo via Edinburg.

“Now because of the CrossValley tie, we have electricity for that and many other things,” BND board member Ralph Cowen said.

He described the news as historic.

“We have never had a billion-dollar deal — and this is a $1.6 billion deal — in the history of South Texas, much less Brownsville,” he said.

Alan Simon, vice president of industrial development for OmniTRAX, the Denver, Colo.-based company tasked with industrial development for the port, said in a statement that the lease option approved Tuesday “validates Brownsville’s geographic, energy and transportation advantages and demonstrates that Texas is a serious expansion partner.”

“While there is much work ahead, OmniTRAX is committed to continuing its collaboration with Big River Steel, Gov. (Greg) Abbott’s office, the Port of Brownsville leadership, the city of Brownsville, Cameron County, local elected officials, and economic development organizations in the Rio Grande Valley to make this opportunity a reality.”

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