Asbestos removal begins at steel mill
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 13:09

The Sparrows Point steel mill once used asbestos as a durable, flame-retardant building material. Now, trained personnel work to remove every trace before the facility is demolished.
photo by Roland Dorsey

MCM works to rid mill of toxic substance

by Nicole Rodman

Working at the Sparrows Point steel mill has never been easy, or safe.                For many steelworkers who made it through safely to retirement, exposure to dangerous substances, such as asbestos, led to often terminal diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
    Throughout the years, the obituary pages of The Eagle have borne witness to the large numbers of former steelworkers who have succumbed to lung diseases suspected to have come from working near asbestos.
    Now, as current site owners Hilco Trading and Environmental Liability Transfer prepare to demolish the once-bustling mill, nearby residents are concerned about the prospect of asbestos being released into the air.
    Asbestos is a mineral fiber often occuring naturally in rock and soil.
    Consisting of strong, heat-resistant fibers, asbestos was used in the past as a fire-retardant construction material in a wide variety of buildings, including the Sparrows Point steel mill.
    Though not dangerous if contained, once airborne, inhaled asbestos fibers can lead to serious lung diseases, cancer and even death.
    Until the 1970s, asbestos use was largely unregulated. Today, federal regulations ban the use of asbestos in such applications as pipe and block insulation. Spray-applied asbestos is also banned.
     Beginning in the 1980s, a number of Sparrows Point steelworkers began filing lawsuits against then-owner Bethlehem Steel and the many companies that supplied asbestos to the mill over decades.
    In 1981, Baltimore-based lawyer  (and current Orioles owner) Peter Angelos began representing steelworkers in asbestos cases. Eventually, settlements and awards in such cases would make Angelos a rich man and a hero to many steelworkers.
    Today, Angelos’ law firm continues to bring asbestos-related lawsuits on behalf of former steelworkers.
    In March 2011, a jury awarded four asbestosis sufferers, including two former Sparrows Point workers, $9.6 million in a suit against asbestos manufacturer Wallace & Gale.
    In February 1997, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a suit against Bethlehem Steel in an effort to hold the mill accountable for years of air and water-pollution violations.
    Under the terms of the decree, in addition to paying thousands in fines, Bethlehem Steel agreed to clean up the land it had polluted.
    Obligations under the decree have been transferred to each new owner since Bethelehem Steel sold the mill in 2003.
    According to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson, regarding the terms of the consent decree, mill owners may only dispose of asbestos waste at the mill’s Grey’s Landfill site or at an authorized off-site facility.
    No asbestos waste is permitted to be dumped at the Coke Point landfill.
    As Apperson also noted, MDE works closely to ensure that asbestos-containing properties are demolished safely and at no risk to workers or the public.
    All asbestos removal work must be done by an MDE-licensed removal company, under the watchful eye of MDE inspectors.
    According to Apperson, “MDE also works with local counties that issue demolition permits to be sure that asbestos removal is addressed under the permits and asbestos is removed prior to demolition.”
    According to Hilco chief marketing officer Gary Epstein, Michigan-based MCM Management Corp. has been hired to remove asbestos at the Sparrows Point mill site.
    Founded in 1993 by David Mardigian, MCM Managent has spent years removing asbestos from facilities across the U.S., including in Maryland.
    According to Mardigian, in a statement issued to The Eagle, MCM “worked in Maryland and the Baltimore area previously when it performed the same scope of work at the former GM Baltimore Assembly complex.”
    As Mardigian noted of asbestos removal, “There is no aspect of the work at the site that is more essential to a successful redevelopment of this site.”
     As Mardigian explained, local unions, including Baltimore-based Laborers International Union Of North America Local 710 and Operating Engineers Local 37, are supplying trained asbestos removal workers to work with MCM on the Sparrows Point steel mill site.
    Throughout the process, Mardigian explained, MDE has been informed and has been on site to make sure asbestos removal is being done safely.
    “MCM has pledged to work cooperatively with the state to ensure a safe process to workers and the community alike,” Mardigian stated.
    As MDE spokesman Apperson noted, his agency is usually informed when an asbestos removal project is set to begin.
    “In recent weeks, work has been done to remove some outside steam pipes and the accompanying asbestos,” Apperson explained last week.
    He added, “An MDE inspector has been on site at least twice. No violations have been noted.”
    As for demolition work at the steel mill, Apperson noted that MDE has not yet received information on demolition at the site.
    “We’re not aware of any permit applications for demolition of buildings at Sparrows Point at this time,” he explained. “Of course, buildings at a facility such as this would be expected to contain asbestos. If and when there are any demolition permit applications with the county those applications will be addressed as described above.”
    While plans for the demolition of the facility may not yet be finalized, asbestos removal work will continue for some time.