Bethlehem Steel to lower toxic releases

Company agrees to permit endorsed by environmentalists

January 19, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Bethlehem Steel agreed yesterday to sharply limit the pollutants it discharges into a Chesapeake Bay tributary from its Sparrows Point plant.

The steel giant accepted the terms of a proposed Maryland Department of the Environment permit that would cut by more than 90 percent the amount of lead and zinc it can discharge into Bear Creek off the Patapsco River.

The permit, which replaces one issued in 1985 but never enforced, also eliminates "mixing zones" that allow room for pollutants to be diluted at two of the company's discharge pipes.

A breakthrough in negotiations for the permit came two weeks ago during a meeting at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region III offices in Philadelphia with representatives from the steel company, state and federal regulators and environmental groups from Maryland.

"The meeting was characterized as very productive and helped create standards that are realistic and protect the environment," Bethlehem Steel spokeswoman Bette Kovach said.

Environmentalists, who challenged the permit MDE proposed in October, praised the new version.

"We have been able to have almost all our issues addressed," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We're pleased to see and hear that Bethlehem Steel is committing to these changes."

But Wade Wilson of the University of Maryland Law School's Environmental Law Clinic, said the permit would be effective only if Bethlehem Steel upholds its part of the bargain.

The clinic represented the Clean-up Coalition, a Baltimore environmental advocacy group, in the negotiations.

The permit, to be made public next week, will be issued with a side agreement that gives Bethlehem Steel three years to build treatment plants to allow it to meet the discharge requirements.

"As long as [Bethlehem Steel] keeps its promise, everything will be fine," Wilson said. "These limits are stringent, and there are big reductions, but they will only hold up if Bethlehem Steel meets its obligations."

Bethlehem Steel has been operating for 15 years under a side agreement to its 1985 wastewater discharge permit that authorized it to dump thousands of pounds more pollutants a month into Bear Creek than the permit allowed.

The agreement, issued with the permit, was to have been a temporary arrangement giving the company time to install new pollution controls. But it remained in force as litigation over new water quality standards and negotiations over the new permit dragged on for years.

MDE issued a proposed permit in October that drew fire from the bay foundation, the Clean-up Coalition and the EPA.

The federal agency, which has the ultimate veto authority over such permits, stepped in aggressively, warning MDE it would not accept a permit that did not meet certain standards.

It is not unusual for the EPA to raise questions about proposals for major discharge permits, said Tom Voltaggio, assistant administrator for Region III, which includes Maryland.

"We've done it a number of times," he said.

The permit is to go into effect July 1.

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