Opponents of Big River Steel mill in eastern Arkansas say plant's permit doesn't stop lawsuit


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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Opponents of a new steel mill under construction in eastern Arkansas argued in a court hearing Friday that they didn't forfeit their right to sue to stop the plant just because the state had already issued a permit.

"You cannot simply take a document and write 'permit' on it and say, 'That's good enough for us,'" Nucor Steel attorney David Taggart argued during a federal court hearing in Little Rock.

Nucor Steel sued the $1.3 billion Big River Steel mill near Osceola, about 20 miles away from Nucor's existing facility in Blytheville. Attorneys for Big River Steel fired back by arguing that Nucor's lawsuit should be dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes did not decide Friday whether to dismiss the suit, but heard arguments from both sides.

Big River Steel attorney Mark DeLaquil accused Nucor of trying to bypass the state after losing its monthslong battle to prevent the permit. Big River Steel won an air permit from the state to build the plant after a hearing before state authorities who also heard from Nucor.

An appeal of that hearing is pending in state court, which DeLaquil said was the right place to hear this case, not federal court.

"There is no other way to construe this suit (than) as a collateral attack," DeLaquil said.

He also argued that letting the suit continue would set a dangerous precedent for companies that had won permits only to face lawsuits and the possibility of thousands of dollars in civil penalties later.

But Taggart argued that the state permit was issued incorrectly and construction at Big River Steel needed to be stopped.

Nucor had the right to sue, he argued, because its business was endangered by the pollution the Big River Steel project would create, potentially leading to federal and state authorities forcing Nucor to cut its production at Blytheville. Nucor's employees also faced the prospect of living in a more polluted county due to the new plant, he argued.

Under Big River Steel's argument, "no plaintiff would ever have the right" to challenge a permit in a different court.

Big River Steel broke ground in September at an event attended by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe. The project is Arkansas' first "superproject" under a 2004 amendment allowing the state to borrow money to help lure major employers.

The mill has promised to employ more than 500 people with an average annual pay of $75,000.

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