Pollution concerns

At Sparrows Point plant, new owner, old problem

September 10, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

A decade ago, Bethlehem Steel promised to clean up its sprawling Sparrows Point plant and to curb pollution that had fouled the air, water and land for more than a century.

But as the fourth owner in four years prepares to take over, some Dundalk residents say they wonder what happened to the extensive cleanup ordered by federal and state environmental officials.

"Over the last 10 years, I question what has changed," said Sharon Beazley, a Dundalk community activist.

For example, kish - a shiny metallic grit - sometimes fills the air and covers neighborhoods when the company dumps unwanted molten iron, residents say.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment say there has been progress and that the next owners will be bound to make good on the 1997 consent agreement by Bethlehem Steel.

Officials from both agencies are planning to meet with residents tomorrow to discuss the cleanup on the 2,500-acre peninsula.

"I've been informed over the years of some improvements," said Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "But that was coming from the companies. I'm more interested - and I think others are, too - in hearing from the government agencies."

The meeting with the EPA and the MDE will be the first community forum since those held after the consent decree was signed in February 1997. Bethlehem Steel agreed to pay a $350,000 fine for air-pollution violations and pledged to correct a broad range of environmental problems at an expected cost of $50 million or more over a decade.

The 1997 consent decree also required Bethlehem Steel to identify the extent and severity of soil and groundwater contamination at Sparrows Point, reduce air and water pollution, and recycle much of the industrial waste it buries on site.

The agreement is binding on whoever owns the property, said Bob Greaves, chief of cleanup programs at the EPA.

"The names keep changing," he said. "But it's effective until all the conditions are met."

Bethlehem Steel sold the plant to International Steel Group in 2003. Two years later, ISG sold to Mittal Steel N.V., which was ordered by the Justice Department to sell the plant after a merger.

E2 Acquisition Corp., the buyers group led by Chicago metals distributor Esmark Inc., said it won approval from the Justice Department last week to buy the plant from Mittal for $1.35 billion.

Mittal will retain a portion of the complex, including the most contaminated area, known as Coke Point, said Tom Russo, the plant manager who will retain the position under the new owners, who are calling the new company Maryland Steel Sparrows Point Inc.

But both companies "fully intend to comply with the consent decree as it applies to them," said Bob Abate, the environmental manager for the plant under Mittal, who will remain in the position under the new owners.

Russo said that Mittal has spent $9 million in the past several years to bring Grey's Landfill up to standards. That project should be complete at year's end, he said.

The most significant change in the terms of the 1997 consent decree is that the owners of the 220-acre Sparrows Point shipyard are no longer bound by the 1997 agreement, said Mitchell J. McCalmon, deputy director of waste management administration at the MDE.

The shipyard owners, Barletta Willis Inc., agreed last year to enter into the state's voluntary cleanup program, which will bring quicker results, McCalmon said. The company's cleanup plan has not been approved, he said.

But the change in the terms of the consent decree caught some community leaders off guard, because they learned of it only while fighting plans to build a liquefied natural gas facility on the shipyard.

That gas facility proposal and the pending sale of the steel plant prompted environmental officials to organize the community meeting about the Sparrows Point cleanup, McCalmon said. Secretary of the Environment Shari T. Wilson felt the subject was especially timely, he said.

The site-wide investigation of contamination was completed by previous owners in early 2004, McCalmon said. And a study to determine risk to wildlife was started this summer, he said.

The goal is to determine whether contaminants are seeping out and what the risks are to public health, McCalmon said. Next, he said, is a plan to fix the problems in order to meet industrial standards. Most of the requirements don't have specific deadlines, McCalmon said.

"If you don't know what is there, how much is there, it's hard to order the cleanup," he said. "But this isn't about studying forever."

Last month, the MDE and the Maryland attorney general reached an agreement with International Steel Group-Mittal Steel N.V. to correct air pollution violations and required ISG to pay a $98,500 fine.

Officials said that environmental violations began shortly after the company began manufacturing steel at Sparrows Point in 1889.

"Something this large, it took a long time to get there," McCalmon said. "It's better than it was 10 years ago. Can it be better? Of course, and it will be better."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

A meeting between environmental officials and residents is scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Edgemere Volunteer Fire Department, 7500 North Point Road in Edgemere.

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