Ending the Smoke at Sparrows Point

September 18, 1991

Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant has belched out black smoke for as long as anybody living nearby can remember -- 1,350 tons of soot and dust each year. Documents supplied to the Maryland Department of the Environment show that, in addition, 300 tons of benzene, a carcinogen, and 2,400 tons of sulfur dioxide also come pouring out of the mill's tall stacks each year. That contributes mightily to the air pollution that made Baltimore one of America's nine worst cities for "non-attainment" of Clean Air Act standards. It also exacerbates the acid-rain problem threatening the Chesapeake Bay.

But cleaning up pollution brings its own costs. Five hundred workers, people who have spent their adult lives stoking coke ovens, now face dislocation as Sparrows Point prepares to choke off the smoke. Some of the affected workers will be able to "bump down," pushing less-senior union members out of jobs in other mill areas, a distasteful prospect at best. Others may retire -- the median age for Sparrows Point employees is 49, with many in their 50s and 60s -- reducing the necessity for layoffs at a plant whose personnel have lived through many earlier reductions since the 1970s.

Still, for some, there will be layoffs.

Bethlehem Steel's managers say an ongoing $92-million, years-long cleanup project simply could not upgrade emissions controls quickly enough. In addition to a $1-million suit filed by state authorities last year, in April the Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit alleging 1,500 environmental violations. That could have meant more fines -- up to $37.5 million.

Thus, the company decided to extinguish the coke fires later this year. Plant managers had been shutting down coke ovens in small groups to install new heat-resistant doors and spring assemblies, repair masonry walls and work on the stacks. But with 210 ovens, stopping coke production in groups of three, to work on the one insulated by its neighbors from the intense heat of the others, proved too slow a process.

So it came down to stopping all coke production to fix the problems, or fighting lawsuits whose penalties might mount if the fight dragged on. Halting coke production wins praise from environmental groups and state and federal pollution regulators and promises relief from the lawsuits. It also will permit a careful assessment of how much repair and rebuilding is needed to make Sparrows Point's coke operation state-of-the-art clean. Two years is a long time to wait for people who have spent their lives in the plant, but ending the belch of noxious wastes from Bethlehem Steel's stacks is a goal that can no longer be put off.

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