Planned industrial park left in limbo Beth Steel's promise of cleanup said to bring project no closer

February 27, 1997|By Liz Atwood and Timothy B. Wheeler | Liz Atwood and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s new multimillion-dollar environmental DTC cleanup plan isn't likely to deliver a quick boost to a long-awaited Sparrows Point industrial park, a project designed to bring hundreds of jobs to the area.

Baltimore County officials say they must study an agreement among Bethlehem Steel and state and federal environmental agencies before deciding whether to take possession of 313 acres of company property earmarked for the park. The county has held off because of fears of contamination at the site, which could include metals, chemicals and solvents.

"It doesn't take us any closer to the development of the property," Robert L. Hannon, the county economic development director, said of the consent decree the company signed this week.

Under the agreement, Bethlehem Steel promises to clean up contaminants on the site, but only after it has cleaned up the most serious environmental problems on its 3,000-acre tract. Finding out what contaminants are present is expected to take four years.

The county has waited nine years to take possession of its acreage, during which it has given the steel company millions of dollars in tax breaks.

In 1988, the administration of Dennis F. Rasmussen, then the county executive, agreed to trim Bethlehem Steel's utility taxes by $3 million annually and to take over operation of the company's fire station in exchange for the 313 acres.

The county has never taken possession of the land, but county spokesman Michael H. Davis defends the tax breaks.

"Bethlehem Steel is still the largest employer in Baltimore County," he said. "We'd all be kicking ourselves if we didn't [give the tax breaks] and they would have closed."

Baltimore County's investment in the property didn't end there. The county also spent $800,000 on site plans and environmental studies.

Even though consultants deemed the property "relatively clean," the county balked at taking the land for fear of being stuck with a huge cleanup bill. "For the sake of the taxpayers, it's a good thing we didn't take it," Davis said.

As long as there are possible contaminants on the land, the county won't take the property, he said. But county officials say they still hope to develop the property.

They estimate that the site contains 100 acres suitable for development and that the land could be sold for $90,000 an acre if water and sewer service were provided. An industrial park on the property could generate 600 jobs, county officials estimate.

In the consent decree signed this week, Bethlehem Steel pledges to do a "site-wide investigation" of possible contamination of soil, ground water and surface water around the Sparrows Point plant. That could take as long as four years.

As part of its investigation, the company will analyze the sections earmarked for the industrial park, said Erroll B. Hay, superintendent of health and environment for the Sparrows Point plant.

Hay said the company plans to focus its search first on possible hazards along the property's perimeter and on sites where production of coke, iron or steel made it likely that the soil or ground water was contaminated.

Some of the land Baltimore County is seeking is along the plant's perimeter. But other parts are not, and those are not priorities for investigation, Hay said.

Bethlehem Steel would be willing to discuss with the county how the company might expedite clearing up questions about contamination on the land at issue, he said.

The company would be able remove parts of its property from the cleanup agreement if it could convince the state Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that those parts did not require cleanup or further investigation.

George G. Perdikakis, the county environmental director, said it was unclear whether the county's environmental studies of the land would suffice.

The consultants found coal tars on one section the county wants, but no substantial contamination down to a depth of 40 feet, Hannon said. Concerns have been raised about possible contamination of ground water below that depth, he said.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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