Md. officials looking into grit from sky

Neighbors ask about progress of Sparrows Point cleanup

September 17, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

Deborah Cicone won't let her young nieces and nephews swim in the backyard pool, fearing they will swallow the shiny grit that sporadically rains on eastern Baltimore County neighborhoods.

She doesn't eat dinner on the picnic table much anymore. And she is letting squirrels eat her vegetable garden because she is apprehensive about the metallic dust that covers the plants.

For Cicone, like others who grew up near the Sparrows Point steel plant, light coatings of red kish on sidewalks and cars were part of childhood. In recent years, that problem has diminished, but now some residents say they are noticing an increase in what appears to be industrial fallout in their communities - this time in the form of a sparkly silver and black grit.

"It's not every day," said Cicone, a mother of two grown children who lives four miles from the Sparrows Point peninsula. "But it's often."

Maryland environmental officials are pledging to investigate the latest complaints about kish, after meeting last week with residents and elected officials about a Sparrows Point cleanup ordered a decade ago.

Officials also are looking into reports of a dark, oily film coating car windows and other surfaces in the area, said Mitchell J. McCalmon, deputy director of waste management administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Kish is a byproduct of steelmaking that becomes airborne during certain processes, such as when a plant dumps unwanted molten iron. The particles primarily contain iron, carbon, graphite and silica, in addition to trace amounts of calcium, magnesium and aluminum oxide - most of which is commonly found in Maryland soil and sediment, said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the MDE.

Kish is considered more of a nuisance than a serious health threat, capable of irritating eyes, nose and upper airways, Ballinger said. Kish on hands and hair has not been associated with any health risk, and the smallest kish particles are about 30 times larger than particles capable of entering the lungs, he said.

When longtime area residents talk of the heyday of Bethlehem Steel, the persistent dust is often part of the discussion. A 2001 book included a typical recollection: Laundry would be hung out to dry on days when the wind was not blowing from the direction of the furnaces, lest the clothes be covered in red.

Reducing kish emissions was among the improvements ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment in a 1997 consent decree with Bethlehem Steel. The agreement 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.

Though the steel giant went bankrupt in 2001, succeeding owners have been bound by the consent decree. Environmental officials said the new owners, led by Chicago-based Esmark Inc., which received federal approval this month to buy Sparrows Point from ArcelorMittal USA in a $1.35 billion deal after the Justice Department's antitrust division ordered that the plant be put up for sale, also will be required to fulfill the cleanup agreement.

At last week's meeting, attended by more than 200 area residents, almost all raised their hands to indicate that they are familiar with the kish problem.

David Allen, a spokesman for ArcelorMittal, said in a statement Friday: "We are aggressively investigating our operations as well as those of our on-site contractors to identify and mitigate the emissions that were discussed at the public meeting. Specific information provided by community members concerning these recent events and their timing is extremely helpful in determining the root cause or causes.

"The pursuit and elimination of events of this nature have been and will continue to be a top priority."

The apparent increase in kish this summer is one of several lingering concerns about progress in the cleanup of the 2,500-acre peninsula.

Russell Donnelly, a local environmental activist, said he's troubled by the lack of sampling and surveying of contaminants in wetlands and communities surrounding Sparrows Point.

"We're talking about the air you breathe, the land your houses are built on, the water you drink," he said. "And we don't know what's in it."

Elected officials said they are upset that the owners of the Sparrows Point shipyard are no longer bound by the 1997 agreement because they entered into the state's voluntary cleanup program last year. Community leaders learned of the change while fighting a plan to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on the shipyard property.

"It's my understanding that the cleanup won't be scrutinized as much as it would've been under the consent decree," said County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, who has asked state officials for more information about the June 2006 approval.

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