The big chemical plants that ring Curtis Bay in South Baltimore -- who in the early 1980s refused to talk about air pollution with the surrounding community -- are holding a party tonight to showcase their new environmentalism.
The reason the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland is hosting an open house for 200 neighbors at St. Athanasius Church in Curtis Bay was announced yesterday: Statistics on releases of toxic chemicals show that the 11 members of the council had reduced their air, water and land pollution by more than 74 percent over the last three years.
Besides becoming born-again environmentalists, the companies have also seen the writing on the wall.
"Environmental controls are part of the cost of doing business," council spokesman Louis H. Kistner said yesterday.
The phase-in of Maryland's tough new air-toxics regulations began this summer, and an equally stringent federal Clean Air Act is expected to be signed into law this week by President Bush.
Pressure from neighborhood groups to national organizations, including the Clean Water Coalition, also has been intensifying in recent years.
Gloria Sipes, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, lives only four or five blocks away from the FMC Corp. plant, one of the city's biggest polluters. She said she's going to tonight's reception to get a clearer picture of the companies' efforts to control pollution.
"If they're really doing what they're saying, it sounds good," the Brooklyn native said. "But as far as our overall area, it's gotten worse. We're still getting a lot of [air] pollution, and we're getting more [industrial] companies in the area."
"I just hope they're not going to give me a snow job," she said.
Said Dolores Barnes, the president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn, "This communication is a Johnny-come-lately thing, and we feel good about it. We're sincere and we hope they are, too."
By complying with Maryland's regulations, local chemical companies hope to become more competitive in the "green" national regulatory environment of the 1990s, Mr. Kistner said.
The council is composed of 11 of the state's biggest chemical companies. The six petroleum companies that have refineries and storage facilities around the bay are not represented.
At a news conference yesterday inside the big W. R. Grace & Co. plant on Chemical Avenue in Curtis Bay, Works Manager Brian R. Martin said the council's members had cut their emissions of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals into the bay's waters by more than 79 percent and air pollution by 68 percent.
Despite those reductions, at least three of the 11 -- W. R. Grace, FMC and SCM Chemicals are still among the top half-dozen polluters in Baltimore, according to an analysis of the federal statistics by Maryland Citizen Action, a coalition of community groups.
A fourth company, Chemetals Inc., was the third-largest water polluter in the city, according to the group.
Moreover, of the 11 companies in the council, four are under binding consent orders to reduce their air pollution, according to the state Department of the Environment. They include SCM, FMC and Vista Chemical Co.
Just yesterday a fourth council member, Atochem North America Inc., signed a consent agreement to drastically reduce the toxic chromium it sends into the air, said Michael Sullivan, a department spokesman.
A fifth member of the council -- Rhone-Poulenc Inc., formerly known as Alcolac -- is negotiating the terms of a consent agreement, but details were unavailable yesterday.
But Mr. Kistner said that only half of the pollution cuts could be ascribed to the legally binding consent orders and don't reflect the tens of millions of dollars the companies have spent for pollution abatement over the last few years.
Mr. Martin, the W. R. Grace manager, said, "A good percentage of our employees live within five miles of our plant" and are interested in a unpolluted environment. "We all breathe the same air."