Bethlehem Steel Corp. has agreed to an unprecedented, multimillion-dollar cleanup at its Sparrows Point plant to curb pollution that has been fouling the air, water and land for years, federal and state environmental officials were to announce today.
The Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. attorney's office have scheduled a joint announcement that they said should "significantly reduce pollutants" from the sprawling 2,500-acre steel-making complex in eastern Baltimore County.
The combined federal and state cleanup agreements to be announced are the latest in a long line of enforcement actions taken against the steel manufacturer, which reports the third-highest release of toxic chemicals by any of Maryland's major companies.
Bethlehem Steel agreed five years ago to pay a record $3.5 million in fines for emitting potentially cancer-causing gases and sulfur dioxide from its coke ovens. Bethlehem subsequently shut down the three ovens, laying off 400 workers.
Neither federal nor state officials would detail the new cleanup agreements before today's announcement. Company spokesmen did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
The pacts are the first in Maryland to attempt to address pollution affecting air, water and land all at once, sources said. Just since June 1995, Bethlehem Steel has been cited three times by the state Environment Department for visible air emissions. From January 1994 through last July, the company reported 42 violations of its water pollution discharge permit.
Word of the pending cleanup agreements gave Christine Gangi "great hope." The Edgemere woman said she and residents of other neighborhoods as far away as Riviera Beach and Pasadena have been complaining for years about fallout of a shiny metallic grit, known as kish, from Sparrows Point.
"It gets in your doors, it hangs on your screen, it comes in your house," said Gangi. Besides staining clothes and hands, she said, the kish fallout has disrupted her enjoyment of her backyard swimming pool. The grit fouls the water, requiring her to stay out of the pool for at least 24 hours after every fallout incident.
Only in the past few months did Bethlehem Steel acknowledge that it was the source of the material, Gangi said. "We've had problems with kish, with air quality, with water quality," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat whose district includes Sparrows Point and surrounding neighborhoods. But Stone also noted that the company remains a major employer and economic force in the metropolitan area.
Jobs at the Sparrows Point steel mill, once Maryland's largest manufacturing employer, have dwindled from 30,000 in the late 1950s to just 5,300 today. The plant remains the Pennsylvania-based company's second-largest steel mill.
Bethlehem Steel reported releasing 1.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1994. Materials released included chromium, copper, cyanide, lead, sulfuric acid and zinc. Of the total, 1.2 million pounds were disposed of on land, while 222,000 pounds escaped into the air and 211,000 pounds went into the water of Bear Creek, Old Road Bay and the Patapsco River.
Those reported releases are legal under state air and water pollution permits.
The agreements require Bethlehem Steel to identify the extent and severity of tainted soil and ground water at Sparrows Point. Cleanup of whatever contamination is discovered will be worked out later, but the requirement to search for pollutants clouds Bethlehem Steel's plans to sell or redevelop some of its Sparrows Point land. The agreement with the EPA, which will be filed in federal district court, will bar the company, at least temporarily, from tax breaks and other incentives offered under new "brownfields" legislation that appears certain to become law this year.
The brownfields bill offers companies local property tax breaks, government grants or loans and some leeway in complying with state regulations if they voluntarily clean up contamination. However, companies under government cleanup orders may not participate.
Executives lobbied the General Assembly earlier this month to amend the brownfields bills to remove the ban on companies facing enforcement action.
The company stressed its contributions to the economy, spending $270 million a year on payroll and paying $4.5 million annually in state and local taxes.
But state environmental officials objected to changing the legislation to benefit Bethlehem Steel, and legislators refused the company's request.
"It didn't seem appropriate to write an exception for them that could vitiate the terms of the consent order," said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate environment subcommittee.
"The only way they can [qualify for brownfields incentives] is if they meet all the terms of the consent order," Jane Nishida, state environment secretary, explained recently.
It was not clear whether the federal agreement directly affects the stalled acquisition by Baltimore County of 313 acres from Bethlehem Steel. The county balked at taking the proffered land, which it wanted for economic development, after questioning whether taxpayers might be stuck with a multimillion-dollar tab for cleaning the site.
A public meeting to explain the cleanup agreement to the community is scheduled at 7: 30 tonight at Sparrows Point High School, 7400 North Point Road.
Pub Date: 2/25/97