Rumor false about Horsehead abandoning Barnwell County

The rumor may have spawned from fears generated by the news of the eventual closings of the Milliken and Hanesbrands plants in Barnwell County.

The rumor was that Horsehead Corp. would not finish construction of its zinc refinery in Barnwell County but cancel the project due to the poor economy.

The rumor is not true, said Jim Walsh, the plant manager of Horsehead's Snelling plant, located in the S.C. Advanced Technology Park.

The national recession has slowed the construction industry overall. Since steel is a major building material, Horsehead Corp. has felt the recession's effects as well, he said.

"We are not out of here by any means. We are here. We are building," Walsh said.

However, the economy's effects have slowed the urgency in the company's timetable to complete the Snelling plant, he said.

The original plans were to have the plant operational by August. A revised plan will open the site at start of 2010, Walsh said.

However, Walsh said he will look at hiring people as early as mid-year. Hiring will be done through the local S.C. Employment Security Commission office.

The plant will create 65 jobs. It represents a $87 million investment by Horsehead in the area. The plant will receive dust from steel mills and extract zinc from it, turning it into zinc oxide, which can be used in other products.
As of Jan. 16, the steel industry nationally has been running only at 44 percent of capacity, better than the 35 percent capacity it was operating at earlier, Walsh said.

The rumor may have been a misunderstanding that Horsehead is changing contractors in building the Barnwell County facility, he said.

"We are not halting construction, we are just changing contractors," Walsh said.

Originally, when Horsehead first announced Sept. 22, 2008 that it would be locating a plant in the county, the steel industry was "running hot" and "scheduling was everything," in terms of getting the plant built quickly, Walsh said.

The company was using an EPC contract for construction with a contractor out of Abilene, Texas. EPCs are good agreements if projects need to be built quickly, but they are not the most cost-efficient, he said.

Since the economy has slowed, the urgency wasn't there, so Horsehead decided to revisit its construction plans, Walsh said.
The original contractor decided to be released from the project. The company is rebidding the construction contract, he said.

"I'm sure that's what caused this rumor," Walsh said.

Marty Martin, the director of the Barnwell County Economic Development Corp., likewise discounts it.

"Construction is still continuing. They (Horsehead) have opened up the bid process. They were in such a push before," Martin said.

This development could be good news, as Horsehead is now looking for an in-state contractor to continue the work, Walsh said.

"We are going to take a more cost-effective approach - it could be a boon to the state. All-in-all, it could be a good thing," he said.

Horsehead officially broke ground on the Snelling site Oct. 28, although land grading had been occurring weeks earlier.

By March, the framework of the two kilns that reclaim zinc oxide from the steel mill dust will be rising from the ground, Walsh said.

The slower pace of construction might help Barnwell County in that Horsehead may hire people whose jobs are just ending when the Milliken and Hanesbrands plants close, he said.

Walsh encourages any applicants to first take the WorkKeys test, a vocational aptitude and assessment test, which can help in the hiring process.

"It gives me some guidance as to what kind of job skills they have. I encourage everybody to go and get tested," he said.

Barnwell County Council Chairman Joe Smith has also been fielding questions about the rumor.

"Everybody's on a negative mood and I think everybody should be on a positive mood," he said.

Barnwell County will weather the tough economic times like it has done before, Smith said.

"We are going to make it. Barnwell County is going to make it. We have been through all this before," he said.

Smith said he remembered when then President Jimmy Carter stopped the construction of what would have been the privately owned, commercial nuclear plant at Allied General in Snelling in the late 1970s.

That decision caused a loss of jobs, he said.

Horsehead isn't the only corporation to slow a Barnwell County project.

Elkay has put on hold the start of its cabinetmaking operations in the old Efco plant in the Barnwell Industrial Park until the housing market picks back up, Martin said.

However, Elkay will move some equipment into the plant this year, he said.