Author Topic: The steel mill -- a local history Part 5  (Read 698 times)

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Tom Rubillo

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The steel mill -- a local history Part 5
« on: March 26, 2022, 08:45:51 PM »
                                                                                                                     A new era

     The year 1970 brought with it something of a sea change when it came to environmental concerns.  Rachel Carson had published her study entitled "Silent Spring" about the adverse effects of DDT on bird populations in the late 1940's.  Her insight served the same purpose as the canary in the mine.  It warned of impending problems if attention was not paid to how we, as humans, were treating the planet. 

      Congress is always slow to act.   Its historic inertia sort of proves the basic law of physics holding that bodies at rest remain at rest until acted upon by an outside force.  Only massive (and peaceful) demonstrations by Dr. King and his associates ultimately motivated it to, after almost a century from the emancipation of slaves, to address their continued mistreatment, both as a matter of law (de jure discrimination) and as a matter of fact (de facto).  The passivity of that institution despite problems and changes in society supports the old saw that "the opposite of Progress is Congress."

     In the case of the concern for the canary (actually, the bald eagle, falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey), it only took Congress a generation to act.  In 1970 it passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and created the Environmental Protection Agency.  These two steps stand, along with the recognition of China, as among the premiere accomplishments of the Nixon Administration.    Both measures enjoyed broad bipartisan support,  Watergate came later.

     One of the principal provisions of NEPA is to require a "cost/benefit analysis" be conducted before there is any substantial investment of federal money in any project.  While this federal law is not technically applicable to the current zoning dispute regarding the steel mill, the very practical approach to development it sets out is useful to this discussion.  It is, in part, because South Carolina law that forbids a property owner from "maintaining a nuisance" calls upon jurors to do much the same in those sorts of lawsuits.  The question:  "do the costs to the plaintiffs (usually the larger community) outweigh the benefits to the landowner" is one formulation of a proper jury instruction.   Here, in fairness, we start with benefits.

     The steel mill was a profitable enterprise for many years while it was in operation, particularly the earlier ones when its equipment was new.  But its profitability, standing alone, does not give a complete picture of the matter. 

      At its peak, the steel mill employed about 1,000 people.  That number declined sort of steadily over the years.  When it closed prior to its sale to Liberty Steel, about 200 people still worked there.  For the purpose of this analysis, the average number of workers is arbitrary set at around 600.  Average wages for that period varied over time, as did the value of employee benefits.  But overall, between the time it opened the average take-home pay of workers was somewhere around $800.00 per week.  Using those numbers, simple addition and multiplication reveal that more than a billion and a quarter dollars went through local financial institutions and businesses as steelworkers cashed their paychecks and paid their bills.  ($800 a week x 600 workers x 52 weeks x 50 years = $1,245,000,000.)  That's a pretty big number on the direct benefits side.  It does not, however, tell the whole story.  Conventional economic theory recognizes that wages circulate several times around a community before they leave town.  If that is true, the economic impact of the steel mill has been much greater than the raw number would suggest.

     In addition to the direct and collateral benefit of the payroll, both the City of Georgetown and Georgetown County have collected millions of dollars in taxes, fees in lieu of taxes, license and other fees from the mill's various owners.  That, and the city sells water and sewer services to it too.  All of that money has been used to keep the costs of other ordinary government services lower than they otherwise would be, helping to keep property taxes and fees lower for everyone else.  In short, the economic benefit of the steel mill to the entire community has, over the years, been enormous.  Everyone should be grateful for that.