Red flames grope out of a 30-foot-high bank of dusty metal ovens. Hot, acrid smoke spews from cracks in the oven doors, burning throats raw. Men sweating under yellow, fire-retardant coveralls slither along the oily, coal-sooted ground to tinker with a huge black vehicle.
"There is nothing closer to hell than this," an engineer yells over the roar of the fires and the whoop of sirens.
Many Marylanders would agree. After all, the coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point pump more than 110,000 cubic feet of sulfur dioxide, dust and toxic gases into the air every day. That means the ovens that bake coal into the steelmaking ingredient called "coke" could every day fill up eight 12-foot-wide, three-story Baltimore row houses with pollutants.
State environmental officials say Sparrows Point has been violating anti-pollution laws so badly and for so long that they are suing the 6,900-worker steel plant for more than $1 million -- the largest air pollution fine the state has ever proposed.
But for Ted Kress, the inventor of the big black machine being tested this hot July morning, the Sparrows Point coke ovens plant may be closer to heaven.
After nine years of tinkering and arguing, the ebullient, 60-year-old president of a Brimfield, Ill., truck-manufacturing company has finally convinced a steel plant to try out his anti-pollution invention. So every day at dawn, Kress Corp. engineers roll out their boss' giant, skeletonized dump truck bearing a narrow metal box and try to show how they can prevent some of the worst aspects of coke oven pollution.
Mr. Kress, whose name is on several other steel-material-handling machines, has disapproved for years of the steel industry's standard method of cooling off coke: Workers dump hot, smoking coke into open rail cars, then douse it with water, sending billows of steam and pollution into the air.
Mr. Kress has won enough believers in his airtight coke box and big black tractor that the federal government has given Bethlehem Steel a $5 million grant to help it try out the machine. Bethlehem, the nation's second-largest steelmaker, has agreed to pay about $16 million for an entire Kress system if the experiment works by this fall. The program is part of a $92 million air pollution reduction program recently launched by the Sparrows Point plant.
In addition, executives from British Steel PLC and other competing steelmakers are trekking to Baltimore to watch the Kress Corp.'s daily trials.
If the wheeled, tank-like machine is a success, Mr. Kress not only could solve one of the most troublesome pollution problems facing one of the world's most basic industries, but he could also make millions of dollars.
State environmental officials and Bethlehem workers agree the machine is promising. But all is not rosy.
The experiment with the Kress Indirect Dry Cooling system is more than nine months behind schedule; so late that the state is threatening to fine Bethlehem $91,000 for the delay. And Kress Corp. workers still haven't gotten the system to cool off the coke as quickly as they promised.
Indeed, the road to the month-old experiment at Sparrows Point has been paved with frustration for everyone involved, from Mr. Kress to Bethlehem Steel to environmentalists.
And a look at how Mr. Kress and Bethlehem Steel have arrived together at the hot, sooty canyon of coke ovens in Sparrows Point shows how a combination of corporate skepticism, overoptimistic environmental promises and technical difficulties conspire to make cleaning up steel plant pollution slow and difficult.
The trouble is that making coke is an inherently dirty and destructive business.
Coal oven-heated to 2,000 degrees F is caustic and dangerous. At that temperature, metal bends and warps, wearing out equipment quickly and letting smoke escape into the air.
But technical problems don't seem to bother Mr. Kress. In a visit to Sparrows Point this month, the former University of Michigan football standout planned a trip to compete as a decathlete at the Senior Olympics, despite his complaints of a "bum leg." In the next breath, however, he conceded he has never pole-vaulted (one of the most difficult of the 10 athletic events) in his life.
The son of a truck designer known for having produced the world's largest trucks, Mr. Kress built up a multimillion-dollar business that designs and builds special trucks that lift, transport and deliver the hot and heavy materials produced in steel furnaces and mills.
So it was natural that steel plant executives, under increasing pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce emissions from their coke ovens in the late 1970s, asked Mr. Kress if he had any ideas for what seemed to be an intractable problem.