It seemed to state officials that Bethlehem Steel Inc. was willing to accept fines of $1,000 a day for air pollution violations simply as a cost of doing business. So the state upped the stakes yesterday and sued the giant steelmaker for a record $1.07 million.
Bethlehem Steel is lagging behind the schedule set in a landmark 1987 consent order, committing the corporation to spend up to $92 million to reduce the smoke and toxic chemicals that spew into the air from coke ovens, which heat coal in the steel-making process.
In a lawsuit filed yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the state alleges that the steel company violated the consent order 107 times in the second quarter of 1990 alone.
If the state wins this case, Environment Secretary Martin W. Walsh Jr. said yesterday, "It would be by far the largest penalty assessed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and possibly the largest in state history."
The largest fine the state can assess without going to court is $1,000 per violation per day, Mr. Walsh said.
While acknowledging that reconstruction of the plant's 200 coke ovens is under way, Mr. Walsh said the state has grown increasingly frustrated that the company was not meeting agreed-upon targets to reduce emissions.
At a recent meeting with the steel company's managers and executives, he finally voiced the department's concerns.
"We made the point that it appeared that it was worth the cost [to Bethlehem Steel] . . . to simply accept the $1,000-a-day fine, rather than pay the cost . . . to make the repairs," Mr. Walsh said.
The company has paid more than $1.2 million in fines since it signed the consent order in 1987.
Those fines were for illegal releases of smoke and gases from its basic oxygen furnace shop and a number of its coke ovens.
The emissions included dirt, sulfur dioxide (which produces a distinctive rotten-egg smell), benzene and various other emissions that contribute to the formation of smog.
Many of these emissions could have been checked had the company installed its new state-of-the-art system, which will enclose the hot coke leaving the coke ovens.
That system should have been in stalled by last May, under the consent agreement.
Because it had not been completed as of yesterday, the state assessed a fine of $500 a day retroactive to May 4 and added $30,000 in penalties.
That totals $91,000 in administrative fines against the company, on top of the $1.07 million the state is seeking in court.
Although the company can appeal the administrative fines, its practice over the last several years has been to pay the full amounts levied.
"We hope," Mr. Walsh said, "this will get the attention of Bethlehem Steel at the highest levels."
Bethlehem Steel spokesman G. Ted Baldwin said yesterday that the company had not had time to review the lawsuit, and therefore had no comment.
He did note that the company had done a "lot of work" installing new walls in its coke ovens, and that it was committed to making the $92 million in capital improvements to reduce the plant's air pollution.