From Steel to Silver and Gold
By Jeff Harder
A spotlight on the first LEED-certified steel production mill in the world.
The Arkansas Delta conjures the backdrop of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the town of Osceola is the region’s quintessential landscape: soybean and cotton fields, the churn of the Lower Mississippi River beyond the levees, and wide-open miles between glimpses of one small town and the next. The area, about an hour north of Memphis, has also fallen on hard times, with declining population and high unemployment. But on 1,300 acres between the Mississippi and BNSF Railway train tracks, an Osceola steel maker is changing fortunes by turning a soot-stained industry a new shade of green.
Last February, the Big River Steel Production Facility became the world’s first steel mill to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
The $1.3 billion, four-building facility has also been a true economic engine for eastern Arkansas, bringing more than 500 full-time jobs paying good salaries. And for an industry traditionally considered at odds with the environment, Big River Steel augurs a new way forward from the billowing smokestacks and coal-fueled blast furnaces of the past. “Being a good steward of the environment is the right thing to do,” says Dave Stickler, the company’s CEO. “If you can figure out a model that also gives you a competitive advantage, that’s a win-win.”
Big River Steel has energy savings of 18 percent compared to other compact strip production processes.
Arkansas is no stranger to the steel industry: Mississippi County, where Osceola lies, claims to be the fourth-largest steel-producing county in the country. Nor is the state a stranger to green buildings, with LEED-certified projects like the Clinton Presidential Library and the headquarters for Heifer International in Little Rock. But finding common ground was almost a matter of serendipity: Stickler was originally just an investor with Global Principal Partners, the backers of Big River Steel, when he met Laura Steinbrink, president of sustainable building consulting firm Emerald Built Environments, during a chance encounter in their shared hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. After hearing about the project, Steinbrink joined in and nudged the project’s team to seek LEED certification. “They hadn’t been thinking about [LEED] before,” Steinbrink says, “but efficiencies were so ingrained in their whole business model and how they put their company together, in addition to their process and their facilities, that it was a no-brainer.”
These mini-mills make high outputs of steel by melting down scrap metal and can produce the quality and quantity of the traditional mill but with much better efficiency—both environmentally and financially.
When Big River Steel announced its plans in early 2013, Arkansas officials began pitching the delta as the ideal locale, and the state legislature eventually secured $125 million in bonds for the project—the state’s largest single investment on record, according to Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “First and foremost, we were interested in the job creation,” he says. “Arkansas’s Delta region is one of the poorest regions in the country, and we knew the jobs being created by Big River Steel would be a boon to the area’s economy.” In exchange, Big River Steel guaranteed the state that its employees would earn an average annual salary of $75,000-plus benefits—no small sum in a part of the country where the median household income is less than half that figure.
After breaking ground in 2014, Big River Steel encountered setbacks: The company was the target of lawsuits from competitors, and in 2015 John Correnti, Big River Steel’s original CEO, passed away unexpectedly. (Stickler stepped in days later.) There was also the matter of working with Green Business Certification, Inc. (GBCI), to certify a project type with no LEED precedent. Fortunately, the same team behind Big River Steel had already succeeded in using credit interpretation rulings (CIRs) to certify another first-of-its-kind business in Osceola: BlueOak Arkansas, an e-waste recycler that extracts precious metals from smartphones, computers, and other technology for future use and whose industrial facility earned LEED Silver in 2016.
Big River Steel’s grand opening arrived this past March. Its 1,300-acre campus comprises a quartet of buildings, three of which have achieved individual LEED certifications, one of which is currently registered. The centerpiece is its Flex Mill, a combination of different steel-making equipment suited to produce niche steel products. The specifics are complicated, but space-efficient facilities with patented technology on its efficient natural-gas burners, steel rollers, and elsewhere on the production floor streamline the steel-making process while reducing its energy needs compared to a conventional mill. While the drives and motors of many traditional steel mills run at full horsepower nonstop, Big River Steel’s idle at much lower speeds, Stickler says. Wells pump water from below ground to cool down hot steel, and once it leaves the energy-efficient wastewater treatment facility, the water is cleaner than when it left the ground, Stickler says.
Elsewhere, the warehouse, employee services building, and administration buildings—LEED Certified, LEED Gold, and LEED registered, respectively—feature loads of natural light, energy-efficient appliances, and efficient lighting and water fixtures. The project was completed with regionally sourced building materials, and 82 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills. Across the campus, the landscape is filled with native plants that require no irrigation and features amenities like bike racks and electrical car charging stations. Big River Steel also adopted a company-wide sustainability policy.
That focus on sustainability has only made Big River Steel—a supplier for automakers (including steel specifically targeted for electric cars), electrical component manufacturers, and construction projects, among other industries—more competitive, Stickler says. The patented, artificial intelligence–enhanced technology in its mill facilities means spending less energy than its rivals and making constant improvements in its production process. “We believe we’re at least 10 percent more energy efficient than our competition,” Stickler adds. In January 2017, prior to its ceremonial grand opening in March, Big River Steel set a record for the SMS Group, the provider of its steel equipment, by producing 63,000 tons of hot-rolled steel during its first full month in operation. It’s positioned to produce as much as 1.65 million tons of steel in 2017 at full production. And all costs being equal, Stickler says, a client will choose steel from a LEED-certified producer over its traditional counterpart.
While it’s impossible to credit Big River Steel with every bit of good economic news in the Arkansas Delta, its arrival coincides with reasons for optimism. The construction of the Big River Steel campus created 2,000 temporary jobs and employed Arkansas-based businesses. Mississippi County’s unemployment rate, which was 9.3 percent when the mill broke ground in 2014, is now 5.5 percent; the median household income has risen 2.6 percent over the same period. Big River Steel’s total estimated economic impact on the area hovers around $3 billion. (Stickler recalls asking a gas station mini-mart owner to keep tabs on how many slices of pizza he sold before and after construction of the mill; the tally increased from 2,000 slices in 2014 to 9,000 in 2016.)
There are plans afoot for a Big River Steel expansion. “We want to lead by example,” Stickler says. “…You can produce steel in a much more environmentally friendly way: by recycling [materials] in a manner that’s highly energy efficient, by looking at the environment in a sustainable way, and by creating an atmosphere that workers can be proud of.” Whether it influences the rest of the industry remains to be seen. For now, the world’s first LEED-certified steel mill is proof that even the dirtiest businesses of the past can find a cleaner future.