Sparrows Point shipyard sues steel mill

Seeks compensation for cleanup of contamination

September 21, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The owners of the Sparrows Point shipyard have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the present and former owners of the old Bethlehem Steel mill on the Patapsco River peninsula of contaminating the dock and ship repair facility with cancer-causing benzene and other hazardous chemicals.

SPS Limited Partnership and SPS 35, a limited liability corporation, are demanding cleanup and compensation for their own cleanup costs from Severstal North America, the 120-year-old steel mill's current owner, and from Arcelormittal USA, which owned the mill from 2005 until 2008.

"My clients have had to install a very expensive benzene treatment system," said Margaret Witherup, the shipyard's lawyer, "and they think that cost should be borne by the parties that caused the contamination."

The shipyard has spent more than $700,000 investigating contamination at the 145-acre site, which it acquired in 2004 from a prior owner of the steel mill, according to the lawsuit. A system to remove benzene contamination has cost $700,000 to install, plus $20,000 a month to operate, the suit says.

Severstal spokeswoman Marika Diamond replied in an e-mail that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The steel mill has been under a federal court consent decree since 1997 requiring the owner to investigate and clean up soil and groundwater contamination on the 3,500-acre peninsula. Nearby residents and environmental groups contend that the mill's owners have been slow to act, and they recently sued Severstal and Arcelormittal to force more aggressive remedial action. Severstal also recently proposed "interim" cleanup in five spots its investigation deemed the most heavily contaminated.

The shipyard owners persuaded state and federal regulators to let their property out of the consent-order four years ago, arguing that they could voluntarily clean it up more effectively on their own. The shipyard has finished its investigation of contamination on its site and is preparing a cleanup plan, according to Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The lawsuit comes during a prolonged shutdown of the steel mill idling hundreds of workers, which Severstal has attributed to weak demand for steel.

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