LITTLE ROCK — A lawsuit seeking to stop construction of the $1.3 billion Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County is barred by the federal Clean Air Act, an attorney for Big River Steel argued during a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK — A lawsuit seeking to stop construction of the $1.3 billion Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County is barred by the federal Clean Air Act, an attorney for Big River Steel argued during a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock.


An attorney for the plaintiff, Nucor Steel, argued that the law allows it to challenge the air permit Big River Steel obtained for the plant.


U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes heard arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling during the hearing, which was held to consider a motion by Big River Steel to dismiss Nucor’s suit.


Nucor, which operates two steel mills about 20 miles northeast of the Big River Steel site, filed the suit in August. The suit alleges that Big River Steel did not follow permitting requirements in obtaining an air permit for the plant and that emissions from the plant will harm workers at Nucor.


Mark DeLaquil, attorney for Big River Steel, argued Friday that the Clean Air Act allows a lawsuit to be filed against a person or company alleged to be in violation of the conditions of an air permit, but he said Nucor’s suit does not make that allegation.


"Instead, what Nucor Steel is alleging is that Big River Steel’s permit itself was improperly issued or does not apply with applicable law, and that’s simply not what (the Clean Air Act) says," he said.


Big River Steel cannot be in violation of the permit because its plant is not yet in operation, DeLaquil argued.


He argued that the proper way to raise the claim that a permit was improperly issued is through the administrative process. He said Nucor has done so by filing an appeal of the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission’s decision to issue the air permit and by filing a petition objecting to the permit with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.


Regarding the allegation that emissions from the plant will harm workers at Nucor, DeLaquil said, "It’s simply not plausible that workers in a steel mill, any health problems they suffer are going to be caused by a steel mill 20 miles away."


David Taggart, attorney for Nucor, argued that the Clean Air Act allows a person or corporation to file a lawsuit challenging an air permit that was not properly issued.


"They’re saying if there is a permit, that is the end of the inquiry. That is not what … the statute says," he said.


Taggart said Big River Steel put pressure on state regulators to skip important parts of the permitting process, including a proper analysis of whether the plant would meet standards for prevention of significant deterioration, or PSD, of air quality.


"The record before this court is replete with … demands by Big River Steel for the agency to short-circuit the proper PSD review and analysis required under the Clean Air Act in order to meet its time frame or else it would relocate its facility to Mississippi — not the county, the state," he said.


Holmes said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling later.


The Big River Steel plant is expected to employ 525 people at an average annual salary of $75,000. Ground was broken at the site near Osceola in September.


The state Legislature has approved the sale of $125 million in bonds to help finance the project, the first so-called "superproject" approved to receive support through a state bond issue under Amendment 82 to the state constitution.