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BROWNSVILLE, RGV – A former Brownsville city commissioner and aide to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela is to play a big part in bringing a $1.6 billion high-tech steel mill to the Rio Grande Valley.

Deborah Portillo has been named executive vice president of economic development for Brownsville Investor Group, LLC. BIG is part of Osceola, Arkansas-based Big River Steel, which is considering whether to build a new, technologically advanced scrap recycling and steel production facility at the Port of Brownsville.

Big River Steel has a lease option with the Brownsville Navigation District for 800 acres next to the Brownsville Ship Channel.

Big River Steel

“Deborah brings a wealth of experience to our efforts and we look forward to Deborah joining the BIG team on January 1, 2020,” said Ahab Garas, BIG’s president. “Our expectation is that we will move through the first half of 2020 with a focus on finalizing our site selection process and begin our environmental permit work in earnest shortly thereafter.”

Garas said BIG, which was formed in October 2019, will serve as Big River Steel’s development entity and, as such, will coordinate Big River Steel’s interactions with various state, regional and local government entities. He said BIG will also work to structure recruitment and training programs that will be implemented by colleges and universities in close proximity to the selected site.

Portillo served as a Brownsville city commissioner for one four-year term, from 2013 to 2017. Most recently, Portillo has served as senior policy advisor to Rep. Vela, D-Brownsville, where she has been involved with a number of legislative, regulatory and policy issues related to economic development, workforce development, infrastructure, opportunity zones, and banking/finance in South Texas.

Big River Steel has invested $1.3 billion to build and start up the world’s first Flex Mill®, a steel mini mill focused on the production of a wide product spectrum, including advanced automotive steels and electrical steels. Since operations began in early 2017, Big River Steel has provided steel products to over 200 customers in the automotive, energy, construction and agricultural industries.

Big River Steel’s plans for a flat-rolled mill at the Port of Brownsville were recently featured in the Fastmarkets publication. Click here to read the story.

New investment at Port of Brownsville


Meanwhile, Brownsville Navigation District (NBD) has announced that total capital investment at the Port of Brownsville in 2019 has reached $47.3 million, with the capital investment of the port’s Bulk Cargo Dock coming in at $5.1 million. The dock came into service in October 2019. BND said the investment means an improvement in maritime access to three million-bushel grain elevator operated by West Plains, LLC. BND said it also provides South Texas and Mexican grain producers with access to international markets.

Also in 2019, construction of Liquid Cargo Dock 6 and the rehabilitation of Liquid Cargo Dock 3 continued, BND said. The combined capital investment of these projects was $28 million. The length of Liquid Cargo Dock 6 is 1,345 feet. BND says its state-of-the-art capabilities allow for offloading liquid cargo and accommodating larger vessels. BND said it also makes port tenants competitive in the growing Mexican energy sector.

There have also been road improvements at the Port of Brownsville, with a capital investment worth $2.3 million. The investment has resulted in more than 6,000 square yards of concrete pavement, 4,000 square yards of spot repair, 1,235 square yards of full construction asphalt pavement, and 78,690 yards of three-inch overlay asphalt concrete. Roads rehabilitated include Foust Road, Old State Highway 48, Milo Road, and Callaway Road.

In addition, two new mobile harbor cranes are being installed, with a capital investment of $5.5 million. Expected to be delivered in December 2019, the cranes will increase the port’s dockside handling capacity, handle a wide variety of cargo including breakbulk, building products, and heavy cargo and steel products. The cranes will feature a powerful lifting curve, BND say, with maximum lifting capacity set at 125 tons. Its outreach will be up to 167 feet.

In service since last year is a public vessel assembly and erection pad, with a capital investment of $5.5 million. Keppel AmFELS, the largest employer at the port, is using the pad to build two Jones Act vessels for Pasha Hawaii, with delivery expected in 2020. BND points out that the Port of Brownsville is the only place in Texas where deep-draft vessels are being built. “This new industry creates 700 high-paying jobs devoted to shipbuilding,” said BND in a video.

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