RG Steel woes worry local environmental activists
Monday, 02 July 2012 13:10

Bankruptcy case leaves pollution issues unresolved

by Nicole Rodman

    Among the unresolved issues hanging over RG Steel’s bankruptcy filing is a dispute over the environmental safety of the Sparrows Point steel mill site.
    In papers filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware last month, RG Steel answered “no” when asked if its property “poses or is alleged to pose a threat of imminent and identifiable harm to public health or safety.”
    According to Bart Fisher, one of the attorneys representing Sparrows Point Action, that is demonstrably untrue.
    In a June 11 letter to RG Steel attorneys, Fisher called the claim false, citing studies by the Maryland Port Administration and others that have detected hazardous chemicals around the steel mill.
    Most recently, Fisher said, the Maryland Port Administration conducted a study of the offshore environment around the Coke Point Peninsula on the steel mill property.
    The study confirmed the presence of chemicals regarded as dangerous to humans and animals.
    In light of this and other studies, Fisher and Sparrows Point Action are asking that RG Steel alter its bankruptcy filing to reflect the true nature of the environmental threat at the Sparrows Point site.
    According to Fisher, the letter was sent weeks ago, but there has been no response from RG Steel.
    “They are dodging the whole issue,” Fisher said.
    Attempts by The Eagle to contact a spokesperson for RG Steel were unsuccessful as of press time.
    Founded in 2007, Sparrows Point Action originally formed in opposition to a proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) processing plant in Sparrows Point.
    While that case winds its way through the courts, Sparrows Point Action has a new goal ­— cleaning up the decades of industrial pollution along the Sparrows Point peninsula.
    According to Sparrows Point Action’s Facebook page, the group consists of
residents from “Sparrows Point, Maryland and its surrounding communities who are concerned about the billions of tons of toxic pollution that have been released into the air, soil, sediment, water, and groundwater since Bethlehem Steel began mass production at Sparrows Point in 1893.”
    As local environmental scientist Russell Donnelly, a member of Sparrows Point Action, noted last week, decades of unrestricted dumping and contamination of the air, ground and water around the steel mill at Sparrows Point has made the area dangerous.
    Donnelly recalled that, before clean air and water regulations were implemented starting in the late 1970s, the skies around Sparrows Point would turn red, thick with flakes of toxic dust discharged from the steel mill.
    He also notes that kish, the greasy black byproduct of steel production, has always been a problem in the area, raining down on cars and homes around the community.
    In a 2009 letter from the Maryland Department of the Enviroment (MDE) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Philadelphia, MDE secretary Shari T. Wilson discussed the dangers of this residue, noted in an 1997 EPA study of kish in the Sparrows Point area.
    Wilson noted that in samples, chemical compounds used in making steel were also found in the kish blanketing  the nearby community.
    Wilson noted in her letter, “This suggested that particles associated with kish emissions may have reached the communities and that some of these particles could be breathed into the lungs.”
    “These particles contained various elements, some of which could cause adverse health effects at high enough levels,” she stated, adding, “EPA thus concluded that kish exposure could carry potential health risks, but an assessment of these risks was not performed.”
    Donnelly said that, by the 1970s, pollution at the steel mill had gotten so bad that there was “nothing alive in the waters of Bear Creek, North Point Creek or Jones Creek.”
    Though water quality has improved since then, pollution remains a concern in the area.
    In 1997, the Bethlehem Steel mill was declared a high-priority Resource Conservation and Recovery Act hazardous area by the EPA.
    That October, MDE and the EPA won a court ruling forcing Bethlehem Steel to enter into a consent decree requiring Bethlehem Steel (and all future plant owners) to clean up the area and comply with limits on the amount of pollution the mill can produce.
    According to Donnelly, subsequent plant owners did not uphold their end of the decree.
    In U.S. District Court last July, Judge J. Frederick Motz ruled that ISG, which aquired the steel mill from Bethlehem Steel in 2003, was not responsible for cleaning up pollution at the site.
    Motz based this decision, which Donnelly claimed “set the environmental movement back 30 years,” on the terms set forth in the sale of the steel mill to ISG in 2003.
    Frustrated with the lack of progress in the wake of Motz’s ruling, Donnelly and Sparrows Point Action planned to file a large-scale class-action lawsuit against current owners, RG Steel.
    “It’s not about the money, but when you tap on purse strings, people pay attention,” Donnelly explained.
    According to Sparrows Point Action attorney Fisher, he was literally one hour away from filing the lawsuit when word came that RG Steel had filed for bankruptcy.
    According to federal law, all pending court cases, including any civil litigation, are paused during bankruptcy proceedings.
    While Sparrows Point Action awaits the outcome of the case, Donnelly envisions a cleaned-up peninsula serving the community without polluting it.
    As Donnelly explained, if the area were to be contained with a concrete cap and an impervious resin barrier, it could be reinvented as a tourist spot or location for a variety of green businesses.
    He even suggested that the port could relocate its cruise terminal from Locust Point to a newly-cleaned Sparrows Point peninsula.
    Whatever happens, Donnelly just hopes that area residents will get some relief from the industrial pollution that they have put up with for so long.
    “I look at the environment; I’m not very political,” he noted last week, adding, “My whole life’s venture is to ensure that every child and future generation has clear access to clean water, air and land.”