Deal to open Georgetown steel mill 'very close'

ArcelorMittal steel officials and the local union are in talks about reopening the Georgetown mill, the union says, which officials said would put more than 100 people back to work and give the hard-hit area a much needed economic boost.

"We feel very certain in the very near future there will be an announcement," said James Sanderson, spokesman for the United Steel Workers Local 7898. "The United Steel Workers and ArcelorMittal are very close in reaching an agreement that will put ArcelorMittal on firm footing and able to compete with its competitors."

ArcelorMittal officials would not say whether the company was considering reopening the plant or even whether it was talking with union officials about the possibility. The plant shut down in July, putting 245 people out of work and creating a trickle-down economic effect that hurt local businesses that rely on the mill and its workers.

"ArcelorMittal has indefinitely ceased operations at the company's Georgetown facility, which will continue unless market conditions appreciably improve or the plant is put on a more competitive footing," company spokeswoman Katie Patterson said via e-mail.

Business has been on the upswing recently for ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel maker. The Luxembourg-based company reported about two weeks ago that demand improved across all segments in the first quarter and that it turned a profit during those three months compared with a loss during the same period a year earlier. The increased demand should help fuel a positive second quarter, officials said.

"The economic recovery is continuing in-line with our expectations, and 2010 is set to be a stronger year for ArcelorMittal," ArcelorMittal Chairman and CEO Lakshmi N. Mittal said in a statement released April 29 with the quarterly earnings. "The year has started with improved demand in all main markets, which will have a positive impact in the second quarter."

If the Georgetown plant reopens, about 150 people would go back to work initially, but that could grow to about 230 workers, Sanderson said. He didn't have a timetable for when the mill might reopen, but said he should know more details by next week.

ArcelorMittal and the local union have negotiated previously to reopen the mill without success. In August, the company proposed reopening the mill - only if the union workers agreed to a pay cut and other concessions that the company said would make it more competitive. The union rejected the offer.

The mill's reopening would be a shot in the arm for Georgetown County's economy, which experts say has been hit harder by the recession than Horry County because of its dependence on manufacturing. Georgetown County's jobless rate has shot well into the double digits and had improved to 13.1 percent in March, the most recent data available.

City and county leaders haven't received official word that the plant might reopen, but they are keeping their fingers crossed that the mill will resume operation, bringing back those much-needed jobs.

"Obviously, anytime we have an operation like that, we are hopeful it will reopen," said Wayne Gregory, Georgetown County's economic development director. "It's very important for us for it to reopen."

Still, county leaders aren't involved in the negotiations. "That's between the steel mill and the local union," he said.

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said he met three months ago with mill officials, who said they might consider reopening the plant if international steel prices improved and if the company could operate more competitively. He hasn't heard anything from the company since then, though he's heard the buzz around town about a possible reopening.

"I'm not aware of any of that, but I certainly hope it is correct," Scoville said. "I hope these turn out to not be just rumors."

Georgetown City Councilwoman Peggy Wayne said she's noticed lights on inside the mill and heard about workers who have been contacted about possibly coming back to work.

"That's a good sign," she said. "They are waiting on the call to go back to work. It would help the economy so much."

Staff writer Vicki Grooms contributed to this report.