Beth Steel will pay fine of $350,000 Cleanup could cost $50 million or more during next decade

Pollution violations

Company has 4 years to do improvements at Sparrows Point

February 26, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Sean Somerville contributed to this article.

Bethlehem Steel Corp. agreed yesterday to pay a $350,000 fine for air pollution violations and pledged to correct a broad range of environmental problems at its Sparrows Point plant, an effort that could cost $50 million or more during the next decade.

The agreement, announced yesterday, commits the Pennsylvania-based steel manufacturer to canvass its sprawling 3,000-acre complex for soil and ground water contamination, to reduce air and water pollution and to recycle much of the industrial waste it buries on site.

"This agreement with Bethlehem Steel will go a long way toward resolving the facility's environmental problems, resulting in a cleaner, healthier environment for the southeastern Baltimore County area," said Jane T. Nishida, Maryland's environment secretary.

Officials released a 91-page consent decree, which settles lawsuits filed the same day by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The suits accused the company of pollution violations dating back to 1990 and of improperly disposing of hazardous wastes on the peninsula near the mouth of Baltimore Harbor.

Stipulations of agreement

The agreement, under negotiation for the past five years, calls for Bethlehem:

To pay the fine, for air pollution, to the state within 30 days.

To survey the plant for hazardous wastes in soil, ground water and canals, cleaning up any that pose imminent health threats and drafting long-term plans for resolving less serious contamination.

To reduce wastewater discharges into Bear Creek, which empties into the Patapsco River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

To reduce up to 80 percent of the 630 tons of industrial sludges buried daily in two old landfills at Sparrows Point, while taking steps to improve pollution controls at those dumps or to close them.

To meet tighter air pollution limits on emissions from the plant's furnace, and to reduce releases of "kish," a metallic dust that has periodically rained on neighboring residents.

Bethlehem has up to four years to fulfill the pact, with some actions required within nine months. Failure to meet deadlines or requirements might result in daily penalties of up to $15,000.

The company also has pledged to reduce by 50 percent the 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals it reported releasing in 1994 into the region's air, land and water. That is a voluntary step.

"Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant has contributed to the bay's pollution," Nishida said, recalling the company's many environmental violations since it began manufacturing steel there in 1889. "With this agreement, they will be contributing to the bay's restoration."

About 50 residents who gathered at Sparrows Point High School last night to learn about the agreement voiced frustration with the time that Bethlehem will be given to investigate possible contamination and the lack of specific requirements to reduce "kish."

"You don't need an investigation. You need corrective action," said Guido Guarnaccia of Glenhurst.

The company has been heavily fined in the past, including a $3.5 million levy five years ago for releasing potentially cancer-causing gases from its now-closed coke ovens. Bethlehem has paid $172,500 in penalties for hazardous waste violations since 1987, and $100,000 in 1995 to settle a Coast Guard lawsuit over oil spills.

W. Michael McCabe, the EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator, called the cleanup pact "a triumph of common-sense solutions over rigid regulations." He said negotiations have yielded a more comprehensive approach to the company's many environmental problems than if regulators had taken the company to court for violating individual laws, as in the past.

'Beyond compliance'

"We're going beyond compliance to recycling and cleaning up the effects of past pollution," said William A. Hutchins, senior environmental attorney with the Department of Justice.

Company executives likewise praised the agreement as a landmark of cooperation with government regulators. Augustine E. Moffitt Jr., Bethlehem's vice president for safety, health and the environment, said it was the most comprehensive cleanup pact in the steel industry. "Overall, it's a mammoth undertaking," he said.

Company officials expect to spend up to $40 million on new air and water pollution controls and on recycling efforts. Canvassing the plant for hazardous wastes might cost as much as $10 million.

Long-term cleanup of contaminated soil or ground water could add tens of millions to the $30 million the company says it spends annually on pollution controls and waste treatment and disposal.

The agreement follows a difficult year for Bethlehem Steel, the nation's No. 2 steelmaker.

Last month, Bethlehem reported a 1996 loss of $309 million, or $3.15 a share. The loss was attributed to the $450 million cost of selling or closing four unprofitable divisions, including BethShip Inc., the Sparrows Point shipyard.

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