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Liberty Steel USA reopened the hulking mill between U.S. Highway 17 and the Georgetown waterfront in mid-2018. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The owner of the aging steel mill on the Georgetown waterfront is set to spend $25 million on improvements aimed at making the plant more productive and more competitive.

British-owned Liberty Steel USA said Monday that the capital investment will "boost output substantially and secure the long-term future" of the nearly 50-year-old manufacturing site, which makes two-ton coils of a high-strength product called wire rod.

The modernization includes replacing one of the two electric arc furnaces and making extensive upgrades to the melt shop, which is "running significantly behind the capabilities" of its competition, Liberty CEO Michael Setterdahl said.

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The electric arc furnace at Liberty Steel USA's Georgetown mill is to be replaced under a $25 million investment plan. File/South Strand News

“We have a very efficient rolling mill at Georgetown, and we now want to put a world-class melt shop behind it so we can achieve our goal to become the leading supplier of wire rod to the region and secure the long-term future of the site,” he said in a written statement.

The mill mostly caters to the automotive and construction industries in the Southeast. Liberty's goal is to increase output to more than 400,000 tons a year, "but in order to do so it needs to upgrade the melt shop to supply competitive high-quality billets," it said, referring to the intermediate steel castings that get processed into the end product.

Florida entrepreneur interested in Georgetown steel mill (copy)

Liberty Steel USA makes coils known as wire rod  in Georgetown. File/Staff

Danieli Corp., a Pittsburgh-based engineering firm that specializes in the metals industry, has been surveying the South Carolina mill in recent weeks. The design phase will be completed "very shortly, said Paolo Losso, president.

“This is an exciting project that will transform the capability of this pivotal mill, and we’re delighted to be working with Liberty to bring it about," he said.

Work is expected to take six to nine months once all of the permits are secured. During construction, the mill will continue to run using raw materials made at a sister plant in Peoria, Ill.

In addition to the furnace swap, the $25 million spending plan calls for a new electrical system, improvements to the water and natural gas lines, and major structural upgrades, such as strengthening the building foundation.

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James Sanderson, president of the United Steelworkers in Georgetown, said union workers at Liberty "are very encouraged by the news that there is going to be a big investment in the melt shop."

"Since the mill reopened last year, they’ve worked hard to give it a successful future and their efforts have given Liberty the confidence to make this important long-term commitment to Georgetown,” Sanderson said. 

The mill, formerly Georgetown Steel, was opened in 1970 by Germany's Korf Co. It grew to be the city’s largest employer that decade, peaking at around 1,500 workers.

Liberty is part of British industrialist Sanjeev Gupta’s privately held GFG Alliance. It bought the mill in late 2017 from ArcelorMittal, which had shuttered the steelmaking operation and laid off 226 employees two years earlier, blaming a flood of cheap imports. 

The June 2018 restart under Liberty required about 125 workers. The company has said its long-range plan is to grow its Georgetown payroll to 320 employees. 

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott