Bethlehem Steel Corp. today announced that it will shut down the coke ovens at its Sparrows Point plant for at least two years, forcing the layoff or retraining of 500 workers as it seeks to fix air pollution problems that have forced the company to pay $300,000 in fines so far.
Production of coke, which is used to extract the iron used in steel making, will be halted by the end of the year, according to plant spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.
Bethlehem Steel's move comes as Sparrows Point continues to spew black smoke, toxic gases and grit from its smokestacks, despite a $92 million overhaul of the plant begun two years ago in an effort to curb pollution.
The failure to curb emissions has brought lawsuits from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the past year.
The company said that shutting down the coke ovens will stop the emissions and let the company evaluate the best method for controlling those emissions.
Maryland Environment Secretary Robert A. Perciasepe said that Bethlehem Steel had been trying to come into compliance with state and federal pollution laws, but has been unable to make sufficient progress while the coke ovens continue operating.
This is clearly a major step in the right direction," Perciasepe said, although he added that he was disappointed that workers may lose their jobs.
Sparrows Point has been a major source of toxic coke oven gases, particulates, smog-producing compounds and sulfur dioxide, which contributes to formation of acid rain.
State and federal officials said the company's decision to close the coke ovens was independent of their enforcement actions.
Bethlehem Steel has been fined $470,600 for air-pollution violations in the past four years, nearly two-thirds of which
focused on the coke ovens, according to John Goheen, an MDE spokesman.
The state filed a lawsuit last October seeking $1.16 million in penalties for continued pollution violations at Sparrows Point. That suit is still pending in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Since then, the company has continued to violate, racking up more than 200 additional violations, Goheen said.
Last April, however, the EPA also filed suit against Bethlehem Steel seeking $25,000 a day for violations dating back to 1983, according to EPA spokeswoman Joan Goodis.
The move was hailed by environmentalists and community leaders, who contend that their North Point neighborhoods continue to be assaulted by gritty soot and odors from Sparrows Point.
"We don't want to see anybody out of a job, but neither can wcontinue with this black stuff flying through our neighborhood all the time," said Virginia Tolbert, president of the North Point Peninsula Community Coordinating Council.
"It has become apparent that rehabilitation cannot be effectively accomplished while continuing coke production," Baldwin said.
The Sparrows Point plant makes about half the amount of coke the plant uses. The rest it buys.
Baldwin said that closing the coke ovens is not expected to affect the plant's steel-making operations.
Some of the 500 workers will be placed in other jobs at the plant. Those who are laid off will be rehired when openings occur. The plant employs about 6,400 workers.
Baldwin said he did not know how many workers would be laid off and the company has not said precisely when it will stop its coke production.
Beth intends to resume coke production at Sparrows Point once rehabilitation work is complete.
"Beth's policy is to maintain self-sufficiency in coke production," Baldwin said.