Hot steel, cool water

Thirst: The Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point drinks up as much H2O in a day as do the area's 1.8 million residents.

August 11, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

The 1.8 million drinking, showering, cooking, dish-washing residents of metropolitan Baltimore typically use about 300 million gallons of water every day.

Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore County uses that much water every day.

This is a lot of water. Three hundred million gallons would fill Oriole Park to the brim and dump 80 million gallons of overflow onto Russell Street.

It would fill the Ravens' PSINet Stadium. Twice.

As Marylanders and others across the parched mid-Atlantic states are playing golf on thirsty fairways and letting dirt become permanent features of their cars, Bethlehem makes quite a case study in water consumption.

The company is not violating any of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recently announced restrictions on water use. About 220 million gallons is saltwater from a Chesapeake Bay tributary. And 75 million gallons is treated sewage.

Still, according to company figures, it daily pumps approximately 9 million gallons from Baltimore City's supply of drinking water -- at a rate of 7,000 gallons a minute -- ranking it among the city's biggest customers, along with Domino Sugar. What is Beth Steel doing with all this water?

It is cooling down steel. To be flattened and shaped, steel must be heated to 1,500 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water removes the heat from the steel before it is shipped and becomes, for example, a soup can in your local grocery store.

Inside Bethlehem's hot strip mill -- a dank building as large as several football fields and as noisy as a jet engine -- 12-inch-thick bars of steel are heated until they glow, then forced through enormous rollers that press the steel to a mere sixteenth of an inch thick.

In this building alone, 32,000 gallons of water -- per minute -- is gushing like a fast-moving river over the hot steel and being sprayed at the machinery to keep it cool as well. This all goes on 24 hours a day.

"We're very careful about our use of water," said Joseph T. Mendelson, the company's environmental control supervisor and water expert. "We minimize wherever possible. But we're making 3.6 million tons of steel each year. It takes a lot of water to do that." (About 700 gallons of water per ton of steel, to be precise.)

Mendelson said that steel left too hot can develop a film on the surface that hardens and begins to peel off like chipped paint.

"If you don't get that off, you roll it into the surface and get pinholes," Mendelson said.

And pinholes are taboo in the steel industry.

"Your canned tomatoes will leak out of the can," Mendelson explained.

Bethlehem claims to be the only steel company in the world to use wastewater. Two pipes funnel treated sewage five miles from Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant and into a reservoir, where it flows to the steel plant and becomes about 25 percent of the colossal amount of water the company uses.

"Other steel mills around the country are using a lot more [drinking] water than we are here," said company spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.

Bethlehem has hefty water bills, its figures show. It pays the city $250,000 a month for its potable water. It costs Bethlehem $125,000 a month to pump saltwater up a 15-foot-wide channel from Jones Creek. It pays almost $90,000 to drag in wastewater, and an additional $25,000 monthly to pull 1 million gallons a day from four 650-foot-deep wells.

Most striking is that Beth Steel reuses much of its water several times a day -- dumping it over the steel, collecting it in a muddy pit below a building, pushing it into a cooling tower and sending it back to duty, Mendelson said.

That means the amount of water being pumped through the plant each day approaches a billion gallons, he said.

As Mendelson stood on a bridge watching saltwater flow into the plant below him on a recent afternoon, a truck passed behind him. The truck was releasing gallons of seemingly precious water all over a dirt road. Quite indiscriminately! During a drought!

Mendelson was unmoved. After all, he's only following a state law that -- drought restrictions or no -- mandates the practice.

"Steelmaking is a dusty process," he said. "So we water the roads."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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