State environmental officials, increasingly frustrated with poor
air pollution controls at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant, propose to fine the company more than $1 million for failing to curb its releases of toxic gases, according to sources in the Department of the Environment.
The fine, the largest ever proposed by the state for pollution violations, is for continuing excessive emissions of coke oven gases, despite the company's agreement last year to undertake a five-year, $92 million overhaul of the plant to curb such releases.
Environment Secretary Martin W. Walsh Jr. was to announce the fine at a news conference today. Bethlehem Steel spokesman G. Ted Baldwin said the company had not yet been notified of the proposed penalty.
Under state procedures, the company can immediately ask the department to rescind or lower the penalty, and negotiations usually ensue.
The steel manufacturer has paid more than $1 million in fines for air pollution violations in the past two years. This is the second fine levied this year for coke oven leaks.
The company was fined $151,000 in August for 163 pollution violations involving excessive leaks of smoke and toxic gases from the coke ovens and basic oxygen furnace in the six months ending last March 31. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of $1,000, but that fine was reduced $12,000 in recognition of extensive maintenance Bethlehem Steel was undertaking on coke battery "A," a source of repeated leaks.
Coke ovens, where coal is baked before being burned in the blast furnace to produce iron, emit a mixture of toxic gases and other pollutants that contribute to formation of smog and acid rain. One of those emissions is benzene, which can cause leukemia and other cancers.
Baldwin said Bethlehem Steel continues to upgrade the plant and repair or replace leaking equipment. He said the company also is reporting its pollution violations to the state every three months, as called for in the cleanup agreement signed last year.
"It's like writing yourself a speeding ticket," he said. "However, we realize that certain of our facilities do have problems, and we have been addressing them very aggressively."
But George Ferreri, chief of air management for the state, earlier this year blamed many of the repeated violations on "sloppy operations" rather than on leaky or defective equipment. Ferreri said plant workers were not even following some of the stopgap pollution-control procedures the company had agreed to while it was repairing old equipment.
Ferreri contended that other steel plants in the country are more successful than Sparrows Point at controlling pollution, an assertion supported by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials. EPA cited Bethlehem Steel in April for coke oven leaks at Sparrows Point.
"We recognize there is a long-term solution Bethlehem is working on, . . . but in the interim we want to make sure the plant is as clean as possible," said Thomas J. Maslany, EPA's regional air management director.
Mary Rosso, an environmentalist on the state's air quality advisory commission, welcomed the steep fine. She said she had complained to state officials recently about visible plumes of smoke over Sparrows Point.