Sparrows Point steelmaker wants to retrieve, recycle debris

Rising price of scrap makes recovery economical

neighbors worry about disturbing contamination

May 21, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

For much of the 20th century, the steelmakers of Sparrows Point dumped their waste into crude landfills along the Patapsco River. Large iron containers, heavy piping and other metal was left to rust, relics that continue to blot the landscape some 40 years after environmental regulators shut the landfills down.

Now a market that has pushed the price of scrap iron to $450 a ton has created an incentive for steel manufacturers to retrieve some of that refuse. But their efforts are meeting resistance from neighbors and environmental activists who worry about the consequences of disturbing trapped contamination.

"It is great to get this stuff out of the ground, but you need more controls," said Alison Prost, an attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "You are talking about land used as a slag fill for many years. As you take out large pieces, you will disturb the sediment."

Severstal Sparrows Point LLC, the Russian conglomerate that bought the Bethlehem Steel property in 2008, is seeking permission to remove exposed chunks of metal from a 2.5-mile section of the Patapsco River, Jones Creek and Old Road Bay in Baltimore County, to use the material to make new steel.

"The idea is to clean the shoreline and recover scrap," said Russell Becker, division manager for environmental engineering at Severstal. "It has sustainable benefits environmentally and for our operation."

Becker said the reclamation work at the southern end of the 3,100-acre peninsula would extend 20 feet out into the water, where scrap has likely tumbled over the years. He said Severstal would remove only exposed materials and not attempt to excavate or dredge.

But first, Severstal must secure approvals from government agencies, including the state Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Neighbors of the steel plant have long complained about the pollution that they say has fouled their air, the land and the waterways where they boat and fish. Some are skeptical of Severstal's proposal.

"The idea to recycle is a good start," said Russell Donnelly, who represents several community groups. "But you have to protect the environment while you are doing it."

Donnelly said Severstal should be required to screen the shoreline to prevent disturbed land from seeping into the water, use a turbidity curtain to stem churning in the water, and stabilize the ground at the end of the operation. Sparse vegetation now returning to some shore areas should also be safeguarded, he said.

Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wants a more comprehensive cleanup plan for the entire contaminated site.

"Any piecemeal approach has the potential to disturb contaminates," she said.

Bethlehem Steel signed a consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment in 1997 to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater around the site. Severstal, which bought the property for $810 million in 2008, must abide by the agreement.

"We want to do all we can to clean up the facility," Becker said.

As the price of scrap iron climbs, steelmakers around the world are looking to save money by recovering material once considered refuse.

"Waste was dumped at every steel plant for decades," said Christopher Plummer, managing director of the West Chester, Pa., consulting firm Metal Strategies Inc. "What is in the ground may be only 25 to 50 percent iron, but recovering and recycling it is still cheaper in the long run."

Becker said Severstal would clean the scrap and recycle it in its basic oxygen furnace. Rick de Los Reyes, a steel industry analyst for T. Rowe Price Associates in Baltimore, said the plan is a cost-effective alternative to buying raw materials that have doubled in price in the last year.

"Scrap metal, even your junk car, definitely has value," de los Reyes said. "It is still steel and can be used to make more steel."

But Lee McLelland wonders whether the effort is worth the possible damage to the environment.

McClelland, a Bethlehem Steel retiree who lives beside nearby Bear Creek, said dumping was "part of the plant's basic daily operations" into the 1970s. He fears that any disturbance of the land or shallows will release toxic materials.

"It has been covered over for years,": he said. "What is the value to disturbing it now?"

"We know what is there," added fellow Bethlehem Steel retiree Ed Zaledonis. "Getting it out will have to be done very carefully."

The Maryland Department of the Environment will review all public comments on the proposal before making a recommendation to the the Department of Public Works. State wetlands administrator Doldin Moore presided over a public hearing this week.

"Severstal is going to have a lot of eyes on this project," he said.

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