You may not want to eat fish caught in Baltimore Harbor, but the funky water apparently is a little sweeter, thanks to the Domino Sugar refinery with the distinctive red neon sign.
The Maryland Department of the Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say Domino has been spilling brown raw sugar into the Patapsco River as it unloads ships at its Inner Harbor processing plant.
A little spilled sugar may seem harmless enough, but it's producing sour exchanges between environmental regulators and the New York-based company. State and federal officials charged Domino with water pollution violations and levied fines totaling $59,000.
The company has issued a terse statement denying it has done anything wrong and vowing to appeal the penalty.
"This is bittersweet news," said Thomas Grasso, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Last fall, the environmental group, which is based in Annapolis, warned Baltimoreans against eating harbor-caught fish or blue crabs more than once a week because they may be contaminated by toxic metals that foul the bottom muck of the lower Patapsco.
In citations issued last week, state and federal environmental agencies say Domino has repeatedly violated its permit to discharge wastewater into the harbor for six years.
They ordered the company to submit a plan within 20 days to fix problems inspectors found.
On several occasions in the past four years, state inspectors reported seeing "sugar falling into the river" from a conveyor belt, and a "syrupy coating" on the wharf where ships carrying raw cane sugar are unloaded.
While sugar may seem innocuous, it can fuel bacterial growth in the water, depleting the oxygen needed by fish.
Oxygen levels in some deep parts of the harbor are too low for fish to survive.
The inspectors did not quantify the spills and blamed them on sloppy housekeeping.
They also found that processed wastewater flowing from the plant's discharge pipe into the river was too hot at times. They saw a dark foamy liquid of unknown recipe sloshing into the river from storm drains.
"There's stuff coming out of there that doesn't belong [in the river]," said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the state environment department.
Tests of storm water indicate it is rich in organic material, which "poses a threat to water quality," the state complaints said.
Barbara J. Steen, Domino general counsel, said in a statement issued Friday that the company was "shocked" by the citations and denies the allegations.
"Domino Sugar Corp. is a concerned corporate citizen and operates its business in full compliance with all [environmental] requirements," the statement said. Steen was unavailable yesterday.
The pollution citations come after the city and state offered the company more than $3 million in loans and grants toward renovating the 22-acre refinery, which opened in 1922. It employs about 500 people.
The harbor is one of the bay's toxic pollution hot spots, a legacy of the city's past as a seaport and factory town.
State officials have said the lower Patapsco has come back as most waterfront industries have cleaned up or closed in the past 25 years.
But the bottom remains fouled with poisonous metals and other hazardous materials discharged over the decades.
The harbor also receives inadequately treated sewage and polluted runoff from city streets and suburban lawns. The sweetness of sugar does nothing to improve the noxious brew.
"It's one more example of how the problems in Baltimore Harbor persist today," Grasso said.
Pub Date: 10/08/97