The black plume of smoke that has become Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s signature in the sky will disappear by the end of the year when the steelmaker temporarily shuts down its coke ovens to meet environmental standards.
The cost of cleaner air will be 500 of the plant's 6,800 jobs, although company officials said they hope to reassign many of those workers as others retire or leave.
The two-year shutdown comes as the Sparrows Point company was spending $92 million to clean up its emissions of grit, toxic chemicals and sulfur dioxide, an ingredient of acid rain.
But company officials said they decided they could not fix one of the plant's most severe problems -- black soot that comes from the coke ovens -- quickly enough to meet the environmental standards while continuing to operate.
"It is like trying to change the spark plugs in the engine with the car running. It is tough," said Ronald Nelson, deputy secretary at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Closing the coke ovens also makes good business sense, Mr. Nelson and other officials said, because the cost of buying coke is now about the same as manufacturing it in Baltimore. The plant already purchases about half of the coal-based material it uses to make steel at Sparrows Point and some of it comes from another Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania.
"We don't see any adverse effects on production or operating costs," said company spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.
Each day Bethlehem Steel operated its coke ovens cost the company money in pollution fines that could have amounted to tens of millions of dollars. Since 1987, the company has been fined $480,000, 64 percent of which was for violations involving the coke ovens.
In addition, the steelmaker faced two serious lawsuits. Nearly a year ago, Maryland sued the company for $1 million for failing to live up to a 1989 agreement to clean up the air. And in April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brought another suit against the steelmaker, alleging 1,500 violations, which carried amaximum penalty of $25,000 apiece.
"We could have fought it out in court for five or 10 years," Mr. Nelson said. But, he added, the company would have been in no greater shape if it had won the fight.
Environmental officials reacted yesterday as if they had won the fight. "The clouds of black smoke that people see from the Sparrows Point facility should disappear and hopefully never be seen again," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Union officials said they were hoping to avert hundreds of layoffs, but Walter Scott, president of Local 2610 of the United Steelworkers of America, was glum. "It is a sad day," he said.
Yet, it will not be clear for some time what will happen to the majority of the 500 coke oven workers, who have 17 to 45 years of seniority with the company and earn about $16 an hour. Because of their seniority, most of the coke oven employees will be able to bump workers out of jobs in other areas of the plant under their union contract, said Jerry Diclementi, who represents coke oven workers on the Steelworkers Local 2610 grievance committee.
But because of strong ties to their unit and to one another, they were deeply upset by news of the shutdown. "It's devastating because we all grew up there," Mr. Diclementi said.
Welder Larry Cox compared it to being "kicked out of your neighborhood, so to speak."
Carroll Hemling, a mechanic who works with the coke ovens, said he had been laid off so many times during his 22 years with Bethlehem Steel that he had lost count, and the prospect of another layoff was depressing. "I don't feel too good about it," he said. "I am going to lose my job."
Still, he said, he understands the need to shut the ovens down. "They are in dire need of repair, and something needs to be done. They are polluting like crazy," Mr. Hemling said. The ovens' brick walls are falling in after years of peak operation at hightemperatures, he said.
For residents of South Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, the company's decision to silence the giant coke ovens was a breath of fresh air.
"I say that is great," said Dolores Barnes, a Brooklyn resident. "I am sorry to see anyone laid off," she said, but "certainly people working there had to know this was bound to happen."
Ms. Barnes said the emissions were visible from many vantage points in the Baltimore area, such as the Key Bridge, Interstate 95 and theBeltway, as well as the neighborhoods across the Patapsco River from Sparrows Point.
"It is constantly black. It makes you feel like you are getting it three-fold," she said.
"I can't imagine what it will look like without that black plume up there. I see it two or three times a day," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, which has fought air pollution problems in the South Baltimore and north Anne Arundel County area for years.
Some 1,350 tons of soot and dust are spewed into the air each year by Bethlehem's coke ovens, according to statistics the company reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But there also are invisible air pollutants, including 300 tons of cancer-causing benzene and 2,400 tons of sulfur dioxide.
The company will not be allowed to reopen the coke ovens, Mr. Nelson said, until it can meet pollution standards, which will be even tougher as the new federal Clean Air Act is phased in.