Major expansion of electrode plant in Ridgeville

Bob Whitten

The little town of Ridgeville on Wednesday beat out monstrous, aggressive China in a race to build business.

Japanese-based Showa Denko Carbon chose to invest its money in an expansion to its graphite electrode plant in rural Dorchester County instead of building a new operation in Asia.

The company will invest "several hundred million dollars" and add 100 "high-paying, high-benefits jobs," said Bob Whitten, president and chief executive officer.

Showa Denko's electrodes are used in steelmaking to melt scrap metal in electric furnaces for customers such as the Nucor Corp. mill on the Cooper River. The Tokyo-based company plans to boost its annual production capacity in the Lowcountry to 75,000 tons from 45,000 tons by the end of 2013, using some 600 construction workers to complete the plant expansion.

Company officials, both local and from Japan, gathered with state business and political leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley, at the Dorchester County Council Chambers in St. George for the announcement Wednesday.

"An investment in manufacturing here in South Carolina . . . I'm so pleased to be able to say those words," Whitten said to a nearly packed room.

He said that the company "seriously considered" building a new plant in China, and that the government of the world's most populous nation and fastest-growing economy pushed hard with incentives. He said Showa Denko chose the local expansion instead because of ability to expand, demand from a significant U.S. customer base and proximity to raw material sources and the Port of Charleston. He also said the company plans to export "a lot more" following the expansion.

What didn't come up amid the clapping and handshaking was a potential obstacle to the investment. The Showa Denko expansion marks the first industrial project in the state that must obtain a permit called a Prevention of Significant Deterioration, a program of the federal Clean Air Act required for new and modified air pollution sources.

Whitten said the company intends to break ground on the expansion this year, but he acknowledged the potential delay that getting that environmental approval could cause.

"The biggest issue here is the permitting process," he said. "The biggest issue isn't if. It's when."

The Ridgeville expansion marks a key part of Showa Denko's three-year growth plan. Company officials said the world's steel production fell during the economic recession in 2008 and 2009 but rebounded by as much as 16 percent last year -- and should continue to grow annually at a 4 percent rate.

The factory supplies about 40 percent of the nation's large-diameter, ultra-high power graphite electrodes, according to the state Commerce Department.

The operation currently includes more than 220 workers and should begin hiring new employees next year.

The plant's history dates to 1983, when it began as Airco Carbon's South Carolina Works. The Showa Denko Group acquired the operation in 1988, and the factory has operated at 100 percent capacity throughout its history, except for a furlough in 2009.

To make sure the company chose to keep its growth in the Palmetto State, the S.C. Coordinating Council for Economic Development approved Dorchester County for a $2 million grant for site work, and the county negotiated a property-tax arrangement to make the deal even sweeter.

R.M. Singletary, Santee Cooper's executive vice president for corporate services, also promised affordable, reliable power to keep the operation buzzing.

The governor noted the importance of expansions by existing businesses spills over into the recruitment of new employers. She said such investments show companies that are thinking about bringing jobs to South Carolina "that the companies there like it."