State orders mill to cut grit

Sparrows Point steel firm appeals emissions ruling

October 26, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

State environmental officials have ordered the company that operates the steel plant at Sparrows Point to take steps to contain an industrial grit that has been raining on southeastern Baltimore County neighborhoods.

Responding to complaints about the airborne steel-making byproduct known as kish, the Maryland Department of the Environment found International Steel Group-Mittal Steel N.V. in violation of air emissions regulations. The first step ordered by environmental officials would require the company to repair holes in a building that is to contain the material but was damaged by an explosion last summer.

The steel company is appealing the directive, leaving questions about how long the communities will continue to be coated periodically with the sparkly silver and black grit.

Maryland environmental officials pledged to investigate complaints about kish after meeting last month with residents and elected officials about a Sparrows Point cleanup ordered a decade ago. Kish becomes airborne during certain steel-making processes, including the dumping of unwanted molten iron.

Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said he was pleased that the MDE had acted on residents' complaints.

"They have to hold [the company] responsible for what's coming out of those smokestacks and buildings," he said.

The increase in kish last summer is among the lingering concerns about progress in the cleanup of the 2,500-acre peninsula.

Art Cox, who owns the Anchor Bay East Marina in Dundalk with his wife, is among those who have reported the kish problem.

"When the south winds are prevailing, we get dumped on pretty good," said Cox, who says the grit covers the boats 12 to 18 times a year. "Fortunately for us, the prevailing winds don't usually bring all that mess our way."

The grit must be rinsed off or it causes rust spots, said Cox, adding that steel company has offered to pay to wash the boats in the past.

The steel company reported last summer that one or more explosions blew holes in the roof and sides of a building that houses slag dumping operations, according to MDE paperwork.

Because of the damage, particulate matter, including kish, has escaped into the air. But the company has continued operations in the damaged building and failed to report the emissions to the MDE, according to an Oct. 12 letter from the state agency.

During an inspection of the steel plant last month, an MDE official also found that the company had not been using a water-based filtration system required by a 1997 agreement with the MDE and the Environmental Protection Agency to catch dust in the blast furnace area, MDE records show.

Kish is considered more of a nuisance than a serious health threat, capable of irritating eyes, nose and upper airways, according to the MDE.

ISG-Mittal Steel is requesting a hearing to appeal the violations. The hearing date with the state's Office of Administrative Hearings had not been set as of yesterday.

In a letter Oct. 19, Robert J. Abate, a company manager, said the appeal was based "on the elements upon which the department's determination is based." He did not elaborate.

Attempts to obtain comment from the company yesterday were unsuccessful.

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.

In August, the MDE and Maryland's attorney general reached an agreement with ISG-Mittal Steel to correct unrelated air pollution violations and required the company to pay a $98,500 fine.

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