State environmental officials, accusing Bethlehem Steel Corp. of dragging its feet in curbing its air pollution, warn they may pile still more penalties on top of the record $1.16 million in fines the company faces for ongoing leaks of smoke and toxic gases at the firm's Sparrows Point plant.
"If we need to go higher, we will go higher," Maryland Secretary of the Environment Martin W. Walsh Jr. said yesterday.
Also yesterday, Walsh's agency filed suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court seeking $1,070,000 in penalties for 107 pollution violations from October 1989 through last April. The suit accused Bethlehem Steel of repeated excessive leaks from its coke ovens and basic oxygen furnace.
The agency also proposed an additional $91,000 in fines for the company's failure to meet deadlines agreed to last year for installing new equipment that is supposed to dramatically reduce the company's pollution.
The proposed penalties are nearly 10 times higher than the $151,000 fine the state levied against Bethlehem Steel in August for 163 similar pollution violations last winter and spring, all involving leaks of visible smoke and toxic gases.
The company, which has paid more than $1 million in fines for air pollution violations at Sparrows Point over the last two years, had pledged last year to spend $92 million over five years repairing and replacing leaky and defective equipment.
Bethlehem has 30 days to respond to the state's suit, and it may ask the department to reconsider the $91,000 in administrative penalties.
Company spokesman G. Ted Baldwin said Bethlehem was making progress in upgrading its coke ovens and oxygen furnace.
But environmental officials said that the company has yet to install a new Kress coke-cooling system that is designed to contain toxic gases while "pushing" hot coke from the coke ovens. The system was supposed to have been built by May 1 and tested by Sept. 1.
George Ferreri, state air management administrator, said that the plant also apparently has continued to pile up more pollution violations in the weeks since May 1. Walsh threatened to add those violations to the already proposed penalties at the rate of $1,000 to $10,000 per infraction unless the company moves quickly to curb its emissions.
Walsh said he was "disappointed" in having to sue Bethlehem Steel after negotiating two separate agreements with the company to clean up its pollution. But he said Bethlehem Steel officials apparently had concluded it was cheaper to pay the state's penalties than to go to the expense and effort of operating the plant cleanly while making the overhaul.
"We are hoping that this will get Beth Steel's major attention," Walsh said, noting that the corporation's top executives in Bethlehem, Pa., had been notified of the fines.
Ferreri earlier this year blamed the leaks on "sloppy operations" at the plant. He said that other coke ovens he has visited in the Pittsburgh area were far less polluting. That assertion was supported by Thomas J. Maslany, regional air management administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA cited Sparrows Point in April for its coke oven emissions, which could result in federal penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. Maslany noted that the federal government has taken action against other Bethlehem Steel plants around the country.
"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 is possible," Maslany said.
Coke oven gases contain a variety of pollutants, including known human carcinogens like benzene. There are no federal standards for such emissions now, but new Clean Air Act legislation pending in Congress would make it a priority, Maslany said.
The state regulates toxic air pollution, and Bethlehem has filed a report predicting its new pollution controls will enable the plant to meet the state limits. Ferreri said his staff has refused to accept the company's claim of compliance and talks are under way to resolve the dispute.