Despair — and hope — run deep among Sparrows Point’s former workers
The closing of the steel mill at Sparrows Point overwhelmed Bob Jennings. Too young to retire at 59, he faced a gloomy job market for local manufacturing workers and a bureaucracy that couldn’t get him timely training help. He felt like a failure.
No, no, his wife said, “the system is the failure,” but she couldn’t convince him. On a cold Saturday morning, he wrote her a short note of apology, walked to their shed and shot himself.
Troy Pritt, 44, also worked at the Baltimore County mill. When he was laid off, he saw it as a rare opportunity to hit the restart button on his life and earn a bachelor’s degree with federal retraining aid. He loves his business courses and is hopeful about the future.
The two men bookend a local economic disaster. Few from the mill’s workforce of about 2,100 are enrolled in four-year institutions. Fewer still have ended their lives — Jennings’ death is the only known suicide, and his family and former colleagues are working to keep it that way.
But elements of both men’s experiences, the despair and the hope, ripple through the tight-knit community of steelworkers. Many are still trying to find their way in the new life abruptly forced on them last June.
“It’s too soon to really see the full impacts,” says Michael Lewis, financial administrator of the United Steelworkers local at Sparrows Point, who is unwinding the union and trying to help struggling workers. “The impact so far has been devastating, but it’s not over yet. It’s just not over yet.”
In the year since mill owner RG Steel collapsed — after decades of downsizing by previous owners — some of its former employees found good jobs nearby. Others moved to jobs in distant states, separating themselves from a deep-rooted network of relatives and friends.
Some happily retired. Others did so in defeat.
Some are in trade schools and community colleges, holding their breath that they’re reinventing themselves enough for new jobs.
Some work for far less than they made before.
Some are still looking for work. They look and look and look.
CHAPTER 1: ‘That was his life’
Bob and Debby Jennings both worked at Sparrows Point — she for a little over two years in the 1970s, just before and after they were married, and he for more than 30. She still remembers the old-time houses and shops, “like out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” in the remains of the company town that then-owner Bethlehem Steel was replacing with a new blast furnace. Everywhere she saw red dust, asbestos on the ground, hulking machinery.
It almost was like stepping onto another planet, says Debby Jennings, 60. “It was a fascinating place to work.”
Jeanne Jennings, one of their two daughters, never saw beyond the parking lot. Her father always told her it was too dangerous. She grew up hearing “horrific stories about people who died at the plant.”
“I would be afraid as a child that he would die at work,” she recalls. “I really didn’t want him to work there because I was afraid it was going to kill him. And eventually it did.”
Not, as she’d feared, because he was working there. But because he wasn’t.
That is what might be counterintuitive about Sparrows Point and its hard, hot, hazardous jobs: Many of the people who toiled there loved it — not only for the middle-class pay and excellent benefits, but for the camaraderie and sense of purpose.
“The Point” produced steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and hundreds of World War II ships. For some, it employed their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and they proudly carried on that tradition.
Sparrows Point through the camera lens
Electrician Bill Goodman took 1,600 photos of the mill in his years there
Bill Goodman is an electrician who takes gorgeous photographs. He put both skills to use at Sparrows Point.
In the last six of his 10 years at the steel mill, he was the plant photographer as well as a high-voltage and crane electrician — snapping about 1,600 pictures of everything from equipment silhouetted by a sunset to the aftermath of a fatal accident.
Aging buildings, giant cranes, the massive blast furnace: He saw artistry there. And industrial might.
“If I had to put it into words,” he said, “it was just an awesome display of energy.”
One of his favorite photographs shows the molten contents of a basic oxygen furnace vessel, the steel as yellow as the sun. It’s a sight few besides steelworkers have seen.
“There was a hole in the heat shield,” said Goodman, 52. “I stuck my camera in the hole and took a picture — and got the hell out. The ambient temperature went up to the upper hundreds.”
That’s something you can’t capture in a photo — how very hot it was inside the steelmaking operation.
“You can’t imagine the heat,” he said. “You really can’t.”
He saw, and photographed, most of the facility and its 3,000-plus acres. At all hours, too. Like many there in the last few years, he worked a lot of overtime — 60- and 70-hour weeks were common.
Now Goodman works at the port of Baltimore. He’s earning a comparable wage — not counting all the overtime — and knows he’s fortunate. Many former co-workers make less now. Many still search for a job.
Goodman, who’s lived all his life in Dundalk, followed his father and uncle to the Point. It’s hard for him to accept that this steel mill — once the world’s largest — is disappearing, its dismantled parts shipped off to who knows where.
But on his computer, Sparrows Point lives on in images — his, and more than 7,000 others taken over the plant’s 125-year history. Construction with mule teams in the early years. The company town run by longtime owner Bethlehem Steel. Employees waiting in a huge tent to hear about a potential sale of the company.
He has them all backed up on two separate hard drives. Just in case.
“It sounds kind of stupid,” Goodman said, “but I actually do just go through and look at them sometimes.”
“That was his life, what he did,” Jeanne Jennings says.
The Renco Group, RG Steel’s parent, blamed “market factors outside our control” for the mill’s closure and said “the end result was disappointing for everyone involved.”
“But we took an inoperable facility and brought it back online, rehired thousands of previously unemployed workers for over a year — and did everything possible to try and make RG Steel a success,” the company said in an emailed statement.
After he was laid off, Bob Jennings drove north on Interstate 83 to the home he’d built nine years ago in York County, just over the Pennsylvania line, and told his wife it would probably be all right. Hadn’t new owners always stepped in when Sparrows Point’s future seemed uncertain? Hadn’t the mill survived one bankruptcy reorganization already, plus four sales in the past decade?
Then the August auction came. The more than 3,000-acre facility sold for $72.5 million — less than one-tenth of its sale price four years earlier — to a redevelopment firm and a liquidation company.
The companies said they wanted to resell to an operator. The Steelworkers local vowed to search for one.
Bob Jennings held onto hope but also tried to get into training for another job.
He’d applied for opening after opening — particularly in welding, which he did at Sparrows Point for years — but received no offers that would pay the bills. He worried that he was being counted out for good welding jobs because he’d shifted to crane inspection at the mill.
A welding course, he thought, might help. He was eligible for federal retraining aid, like others from Sparrows Point.
He struggled for about two months through a required academic skills test before passing on Oct. 26, his wife says. Then he waited for Pennsylvania officials to process his application and approve his funding.
Halloween went by. Thanksgiving. Christmas.
A push to save Sparrows Point history
Small cadre of people rush to save documents, memories
Bill Barry heard stories about Sparrows Point for years while teaching labor classes to steelworkers. That’s how the history of the mill ensnared him — the stories of hazards, of civil-rights struggles, of long hours and a camaraderie akin to family.
He videotaped more than 100 hours of interviews with steelworkers, and he has dozens of boxes of documents and Point memorabilia. But his effort took on a new urgency after the mill closed last year.
The retired community college teacher isn’t alone in his quest to bring attention to this history. Just recently, students guided by Michelle Stefano and Bill Shewbridge at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County put together a “Mill Stories” project with former steelworkers talking on video about their jobs and lives.
And the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. is searching for funding to pay for 10 public murals of local steelworkers. The project, estimated at $65,000, was proposed by an artist whose grandfather worked at Sparrows Point.
“The idea of this is to … put a face to the history — literally,” said Amy Menzer, executive director of the nonprofit community-development group.
For Barry, who retired last year as director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County, the clock is ticking. United Steelworkers officials are winding down the local union. It’s the last chance to save paperwork detailing decades of daily life at Sparrows Point, from grievances to strike records to job classifications.
Barry stops by the union offices every week, making use of the time he has left.
He’s shipped some of the documents to a Pennsylvania State University steelworker archive; the rest — what’s not shredded to protect personal information — he’s keeping locally. He’s also got baseball caps from the old company team, models of Sparrows Point trains, a map of the long-gone company town, a photograph showing some of the first female steelworkers at the plant and all sorts of other items.
He hopes to find space locally for a permanent exhibit or even a full-blown museum of Baltimore’s labor history. Where, he’s not sure. But he’s making the rounds, convinced that this history matters.
“I am going to find a place,” Barry said.
He can see America in Sparrows Point’s past — the heyday of steel — and in its present state, as the once-massive plant is dismantled. But he is really struck by the steelworkers’ stories, some of which are on his website, sparrowspointsteelworkers.com.
“The conditions down there were so tough,” he said. “The interviews I’ve done, people would say, ‘Oh, Christmas morning, I was never home with my kids, I was at work. Their first communion, I wasn’t home, I was at work.’ ”
Still, the bond between employees there is one that few workplaces can match. Barry understands why people laid off amid last year’s shutdown feel a loss that cuts deep.
“I have a question [for steelworkers]: ‘Do you feel closer to people you work with than your own family?’ ” Barry said. “I always get a kind of hesitation. People will say, ‘Well, I love my family.’ Then they’ll say, ‘But I’m really close to all the people down there.’ ”
While he waited, the plant’s last chance evaporated. A competitor bought the facility’s most valuable mill for spare parts. Everything else would be sold off in pieces or demolished, the land redeveloped, likely for industrial uses such as a marine terminal.
“That’s it, Deb,” he told his wife after hearing the news at a December union meeting. “It’s gone. It’s gone.”
The months after the layoff changed him. He was quieter. Stopped telling jokes. Slept less. Sometimes as he struggled on the computer “he would scream and hold his head,” his wife says.
His remaining hope rested on a welding course that was to begin the first Monday in January. The Friday before, he called Pennsylvania’s workforce agency to make sure that his funding was set. Not yet, his rep said.
The next day, when Debby Jennings popped out for a blood test, her husband walked to the shed, put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.
“When he didn’t get that approval letter, that pushed him over the edge,” Jeanne Jennings says.
The approval arrived in the mail the next week, his wife says. Seven days too late.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor & Industry declined to comment.
Everything from the bankruptcy to the funding delay angers his family. Deep grief, too, catches Jeanne Jennings if she allows herself to think too much about it. Debby Jennings pretends that her husband is on a hunting trip.
They could have managed, she says. The house is paid off. But he’d worked his way out of poverty, and his family thinks the fear of slipping back overwhelmed him.
Jeanne Jennings remembers her father telling her that nothing was worth killing yourself over. She wants no one from Sparrows Point to follow him down that road, leaving family members behind to mourn and ask why.
“I don’t think it’s ever as bad as it really seems,” she says. “Life can change in a second. Life would have changed for him in a second, had he just waited for the approval letter to come.”
Left to care for the home she and her husband saved so long to build, Debby Jennings wondered whether to sell. There’s more than an acre of grass to cut, some of it hilly, and that was her husband’s chore.
But instead of hiring a real estate agent, she bought a small riding mower. It’s hard work. And she’s good at it.
“People say to me, ‘Your yard is so beautiful.’ ”
CHAPTER 2: A shifting identity
Troy Pritt finished his first semester at the University of Baltimore in May with two A’s and two B’s, enjoyed a one-week break and dove back into classes. This is his life now: full-time student, 26 years after graduating from high school.
He considered college as a teenager growing up in Dundalk. But no one else in his family went, and he took a job instead — the clear, well-trod path.
“People say you can’t go back and do it again,” Pritt says, “but I’m really getting a chance to do that, taking the path I didn’t take.”
Sparrows Point’s various owners paid for workers to go to college if they chose, but most didn’t — everyone worked crazy hours. Then Severstal, the plant’s second-to-last owner, began temporary layoffs in 2010, and Pritt volunteered.
When the 10-week layoff was extended, his wife, Kim, said, “This doesn’t look good. You need to have a plan.” He enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore County. Six classes later, RG Steel bought the mill and called workers back.
Pritt was reluctant. “I had evolved into this college student,” he says.
Even so, he returned, first to the warehouse and then to his usual job on the No. 4 coating line, leveling buckled steel and performing quality checks.
A ‘bit of relief’ for Sparrows Point workers
Former steelworker on the effort to connect the Point crowd with help — and on the stages of grief
Sixteen years, five days — that’s how long Chris MacLarion worked at the Sparrows Point steel mill. Now he’s in a job with another expiration date, helping fellow steelworkers get assistance from a grant that runs out next year.
It’s a big change from the noisy bustle of the mill, which employed about 2,100 at the bitter end. He sits six miles north in the Eastpoint one-stop career center, behind a Dollar Buys and across from a Goodwill store.
MacLarion — a project manager for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation — is glad steelworkers have access to the grant he monitors. It means reimbursement for gas used on the way to and from training. A hundred dollars for interview clothes. Extra resume help.
“A little bit of relief — not a lot, but a little,” said MacLarion, 39, who knows from recent experience how fuel costs bite into $430-a-week unemployment payments.
Steelworkers also are eligible for retraining help from the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps people hurt by foreign competition. After getting an earful from Point workers last year about funding delays and complications, MacLarion started his new job in late January braced for problems.
But things already were turning around, he said. Since December, state officials say, they added five people to the effort at Eastpoint, brought employees in on evenings and weekends to fix a disorganized filing system and teamed up with Baltimore County on Sparrows Point matters.
“There’s no way you can’t see the difference,” MacLarion said. “I have seen nothing at that level of chaos for months.”
He and another state employee called all the laid-off Point folks they could reach who hadn’t come in for assistance by late April. Of the 64 people they talked to, a third found new jobs. Nearly as many retired. A handful moved. The rest — one in four — remained in limbo, searching for work.
Many more, though, had already come for help. Of the 2,100 laid off from the Point and others whose jobs directly depended on the plant, about 760 received funds to cover training, the state says.
As terrible as the plant closure is, the opportunity to go back to school at no cost is a chance for reinvention, MacLarion said. He received that assistance himself at the University of Baltimore until he landed his contract job with the state. Now he’s paying his own way, taking classes toward his jurisprudence major at night.
But would he rather be back at Sparrows Point? Yes. In an essay about his complex feelings for the mill, he wrote: “I hated you nearly as much as I loved you. The problem is that I didn’t know that I loved you until it was too late.”
Now he sits in a gray cubicle, his clothing just as muted, and ponders what stage of grief he’s in.
“I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “You’d have to ask me on each individual day.”
The plant’s closure a year later propelled him into the life he now wanted. Federal funding for workers affected by foreign trade covers his education at UB.
But it’s not that simple.
Mixed with his joy about tackling challenging course work — accounting, business law, global management — is the pain of losing a good paycheck and the turmoil surrounding medical benefits.
Though his 17-year-old son’s wisdom teeth were removed last July, when the insurance was still in force, RG Steel set aside too little money for payments. Money ran out before the bill arrived. His wife said she spent months wrangling with her secondary dental insurer until it finally picked up most of the $1,700 tab.
Yet they know they’re lucky. Some steelworkers lost their homes. Others have larger medical bills and no secondary insurance.
“Everybody’s life has been turned upside down,” Kim Pritt says.
Still in steel — 1,429 miles away from Sparrows Point
Former Point manager builds a new life in Texas
By the time Kent Stimmel was laid off from Sparrows Point last August, the massive operation had dwindled to perhaps 100 people. The once-blazing blast furnace was down to embers. The last steel coil made in the plant’s hot mill had been shipped out.
He snapped a photo as it left.
“I can’t really describe the feeling … when I got in my car and knew I would never come back,” he said. “Very surreal.”
Stimmel, 61, had worked his entire adult life at the Point — 42 years. He went from a mechanic helper to a top supervisor, managing the hot strip mill operating department.
Now he’s in a similar job 1,429 miles away. How that came to be is pretty surreal, too.
Stimmel heard from a colleague that a steel company in Baytown, Texas, was hiring, so he sent his resume. Interviews led to a job offer. He and his wife packed quickly. Thirty-two days after Sparrows Point laid him off, he started work in Baytown.
There’s plenty good about the move. He was tired of Baltimore winters. His new house has a swimming pool. His wife’s mother and two of her sisters live in nearby Houston. And he’s happy to be in a region where manufacturing jobs are more plentiful.
There’s bad, too.
“I miss a lot of things in Baltimore, there’s no question about that,” Stimmel said. “I miss my children.”
But they’ve been to visit. And he has quickly surrounded himself with reminders of home.
Five others from Sparrows Point now work at JSW Steel in Baytown. Thousands of dollars of tools, parts and other materials from the Point are headed to Stimmel’s department, too, bought from the industrial liquidator overseeing the mill’s dismantling. And on his office desk sits that photo he took — the tractor-trailer about to head out with that last coil, the end of the line for a mill that employed so many.
“I think about the guys back in Baltimore a lot,” Stimmel said. “I know they’re not doing well. I just wish they were doing better.”
Troy Pritt wrote a short story last year — a poem, really — to try to explain:
The furnace is cold, and the steel no longer flows.
Silence enveloped the land that hadn’t heard silence in over a hundred years.
He stood in the parking lot, not knowing what to do next.
Four generations of his family gave their life to the mill.
When the boss passed him in the parking lot, he yelled out, “Where do I go?”
The boss replied, “You go home.”
He nodded in recognition. However, he didn’t understand.
“I am home,” he thought.
Recalling his final day at the mill, Pritt choked up. It catches him sideways, this deep emotion for a place he wanted to leave. The plant’s closure was almost like the death of his mother. He might have wanted to chart a new course, but there’s a difference between going and never being able to return.
He misses the sounds of the Point, the mill’s trains and the boooosh of the blast furnace bleeding off gases, that he could hear clear out in his Dundalk rowhouse. He misses being a steelworker — that identity, as strong as religion, that connected him with tens of thousands of local people, living and dead.
Now, what is he?
“I’m trying to figure it out,” he says.
CHAPTER 3: The mortician
Michael Lewis picks up a folder, flipping through papers — a tiny portion of the more than 50 years of documents stored at the United Steelworkers Local 9477 complex on Dundalk Avenue. He spots personal information and stops.
Unlike some records, this will not be shipped to Pennsylvania State University’s archive of steelworker history. Instead, he tosses the paper into a tall container for shredding.
This is what the unwinding of a union looks like. Empty shelves, empty chairs, full bins for the shredder.
Back in his office, still vibrant with photos, certificates and union posters, Lewis works on other problems brought by former co-workers.
He acts as a de facto human resources office — the real one no longer exists — to verify employment for prospective employers and track down training records. He helps negotiate payment plans for steelworkers left with unpaid medical bills. And he encourages people to send their resume to the Steelworkers to be forwarded to Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.
He and secretary Chrysta Lopez are all that’s left of 9477, not counting the two retirees who clean the union’s two aging buildings part time.
“I actually feel like that mortician who’s preparing his own family member for burial,” says Lewis, 52. “You want to be the one to do it to know it’s being done right, but at the same time, it’s heartbreaking.”
He doesn’t know how long it will take to finish the work and put himself out of a job, though he suspects at least several months. And he doesn’t know for certain what he’ll do afterward, but he’s working on that. He’s too young to retire.
Steel mill’s closure means changes for retirees
Large monthly meetings must be relocated, the latest example of bankruptcy ripple effects on retirees
Sparrows Point retirees watch out for each other. Several hundred gather for monthly meetings at a United Steelworkers union hall on Dundalk Avenue, hearing the latest about Medicaid, asbestos lawsuits and newly departed colleagues.
The loss of the steel mill means that the hall soon will no longer be the union’s. Like the mill, it might even be torn down .
“That puts guys like me in a little of a frenzy because I don’t want nothing to happen to our meetings that keep people together, keep them informed,” says LeRoy R. McClelland Sr., who attends every one of the Local 9477 retiree group gatherings and also is vice president of the local chapter of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.
But the retirees will have a place — somewhere — for a while yet. United Steelworkers said it would cover the cost of meeting space for at least five years.
McClelland, 75, is typical of Sparrows Point retirees. The Essex man speaks of his 42 years there with warmth, but retirement has not gone exactly as he’d hoped.
Bethlehem Steel’s bankruptcy in 2001, which set Sparrows Point down the path that eventually led to its closure, left retirees with less than they’d planned on. Their company-covered health care benefits and life insurance evaporated. Many saw pension payments trimmed after the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. stepped in, said Don Kellner, head of both local steelworker retiree groups.
Kellner said the average reduction was probably 15 percent, but it varied widely. McClelland says his pension was sliced in half.
He’s not complaining. He once thought of buying a place down South in his retirement and now he can’t, but he’s used to living frugally. He’s glad the pension didn’t disappear along with the insurance.
“Without that, guys like myself, we would be on skid row right now,” McClelland said.
Still, more money really would have helped last year. His son John, laid off from the Point when it shut down, lost his home to foreclosure.
“His monthly house payment was just too much for us to handle,” said McClelland, who took in his son.
His son is in school, hoping to become an electrical engineer, and McClelland is optimistic about that career choice. But he worries about his grandchildren’s generation. What job opportunities will they have with so many manufacturing options gone?
He stopped by a discount store this spring to buy an American flag. “Made in China,” the sticker said.
His family saw the heights and depths of Sparrows Point. His grandfather and great-uncle came up from North Carolina in 1927, part of the great migration of African-Americans from the South, and took jobs at the plant. His great-uncle still worked there when employment peaked in the late 1950s at more than 30,000 jobs.
Technological innovations, domestic competition and foreign imports pared that number down. When Lewis arrived in 1979, he was one of about 17,000 workers. By the time RG Steel filed for bankruptcy on May 31, 2012, employment was down to about 2,100 — not counting the hundreds employed by contractors and suppliers.
Now steelworkers who donated every year to the Maryland Food Bank, who once were big contributors to the United Way of Central Maryland, rely on help from both organizations.
“I’ve watched how middle-class jobs just disappear, slowly but surely,” Lewis says. “And it does have a ripple effect through the community. If I look in the city of Baltimore where I grew up, I think some of the social ills that we’re dealing with are because of the loss of these jobs.”
He sees in that change some explanation for the widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. Someone made a lot of money sending jobs overseas, he figures.
Dundalk, just north of the closed steel mill and long home to many of the plant’s blue-collar workers, is on the wrong side of the gap. In 1979, the median household income there was the same as it was statewide — the equivalent of $59,000 in today’s dollars, according to a Maryland Department of Planning analysis of census data. From 2007 to 2011, Maryland’s median household income was about $72,000 — driven up by jobs requiring college and advanced degrees — while Dundalk’s fell to $48,000.
“We’re creating a society of maids, short-order cooks and panhandlers,” Lewis says. “That’s what we’re doing.”
In May, Lewis took a few hours’ break from paperwork and problems for an event in one of the union halls. Students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County showed videos they produced of steelworkers talking about their lives and what Sparrows Point meant to them.
Troy Pritt sat with his wife in the audience. He read his poem in one of the segments.
From “Mill Stories” by the students of UMBC
Steelworker Calvin Smith invoked Bob Jennings’ name when he thundered to the crowd about how much they had lost. He railed against politicians, the union’s international leadership, the mill’s final owner and the bankruptcy system, saying all made a possibly inevitable closure worse.
“You don’t do human beings like that,” Smith said.
Lewis’ video was among the last. His eyes looked weary as he made his final point.
Legacy of pollution haunts Sparrows Point neighbors
Kish, the visible form of mill’s pollution, ‘invaded’ homes, leaving residents to worry about health effects
When the Sparrows Point steel mill closed, Deborah S. Barkley felt sorry for the laid-off workers — she didn’t want that to happen. But she knew her life would get better.
For 20 years, she’s lived less than a mile from the Baltimore County plant. Until the facility shut down last summer, she said, silvery black grit and dust from steelmaking — known as kish — regularly blew in or rained down onto her family’s yard, was tracked onto the carpets and corroded the exterior of the house.
Keeping her property clean was a constant battle. She stopped having cookouts. She tore out the pool she’d spent $10,000 on for her three kids. And though the state described it as more nuisance and respiratory irritant than health risk, she worried about whether the “silver rain” was harming her children. All three suffer from year-round allergies.
“It invaded our lives,” said Barkley, 59. “It just was endless.”
Pervasive pollution is steelmaking’s unfortunate legacy in and around Sparrows Point. How much remains in the ground and the water is unknown. The mill’s various operators have been under orders to clean up the site since 1997.
With steelmaking done, the kish is now gone. But it was the most visible form of that pollution for nearby communities, and anxiety about it will linger long after the mill’s final pieces are carted off. That’s because little research has been done on the byproduct’s health effects, and what exists is unsettling.
Kish, produced from molten iron, is primarily graphite and iron oxides, with a mishmash of other steelmaking ingredients — from aluminum to chromium.
A 2000 Environmental Protection Agency report on Sparrows Point kish confirmed it was getting into residential areas, including a significant amount small enough to inhale. The kish’s “concentrations of chromium and zinc suggested a potential toxicity concern for human health and the environment,” the report added.
Questions raised by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — the mill sits near the bay, nearly surrounded by water — prompted the Maryland Department of the Environment to take another look at the EPA report years later. In 2010, the agency asked the EPA to conduct more particulate sampling in Sparrows Point to evaluate potential health risks.
Roy Seneca, an EPA spokesman, said his agency hadn’t begun the project before the mill shutdown last year made it impossible. No kish, nothing to measure.
That means the health risk suggested in the EPA report can’t be quantified, said Dr. Jed Miller, the state environmental agency’s health adviser. He said exposures to some elements that may be found in kish, such as manganese, are only linked with health problems above certain levels.
Complicating matters, he said, is that he could find nothing about kish exposure in the medical literature.
“It’s one of those things that’s uncertain,” Miller said.
Troubling questions without full answers is a theme for Sparrows Point pollution, said Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Setting aside kish, a variety of “very hazardous” chemicals remain in the soil and waterways from more than a century of steelmaking, she said. Much, she added, is still unknown about the extent and effects of the pollution.
“The type of industry that was there used and discharged very toxic kind of chemicals, including heavy metals and what are called PAHs,” said Coble, referring to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene and anthracene. “These are cancer-causing chemicals that are very concerning to public health officials.”
Old cleanup pledge
In 1997, after years of complaints, then-owner Bethlehem Steel agreed to cleanup efforts at Sparrows Point that the company said could cost $50 million. That consent decree with the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment settled lawsuits newly filed by both agencies.
The agreement required the company to look for hazardous wastes on the site, clean contamination if it posed an immediate health threat, reduce — though not stop — kish releases, and make other changes.
Since then, no immediate threats to health were found, the state says. Maryland’s environmental agency said Bethlehem Steel and subsequent mill operators cleaned or contained most of the contamination.
The new landowner, redevelopment firm Environmental Liability Transfer, is bound by the same agreement to keep toxic chemicals on the site from getting into the water. The St. Louis-based company, which specializes in projects involving contamination, said it’s likely that certain areas of the property will be cleaned beyond that mandate.
“Customers and tenants may have site specific requirements beyond the Consent Decree that we will address,” said Randall Jostes, the company’s CEO, in an email. “It is important to note that extensive work to date has demonstrated that the actual footprint for active remediation is quite small in relation to the property available for development. There are many potential parcels that are not impaired and can be put into productive use now.”
But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation takes issue with the state’s contention that most of the remediation is done, saying there have been insufficient assessments. Foundation officials also argue that the 1997 consent decree took too long to be struck, did not go far enough at the time and was not properly enforced.
The foundation is fighting in court for a more comprehensive assessment offshore than the EPA plans. It’s “inexcusable” that 16 years after the agreement, regulators still are planning how to investigate contamination in nearby waters, said Christine Tramontana, litigation counsel at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Bethlehem Steel was such a powerhouse in Baltimore that I think [environmental regulators] never wanted to come down hard on them,” she said. “The agencies knew about contamination on the property as far back as the 1980s and maybe even sooner.”
Jay Apperson, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman, responded that the plant is “perhaps the most complex environmental cleanup site in Maryland.”
“This is a result of 100 years of industry, much of it predating modern environmental laws, so cleanup is a huge undertaking,” he said. “We understand people’s concerns about the environmental issues and the pace at which they’ve been addressed, but at this point, a majority of the work has been done and MDE will continue to ensure that public health is protected.”
The decades of pollution split an otherwise tight-knit community into two groups — the people pressing for more aggressive remediation and the people who feared an expensive cleanup would imperil the good jobs there.
But in the end, cleanup mandates weren’t the steel mill’s biggest problem. When Bethlehem Steel sought bankruptcy protection in 2001, two years before it ceased to exist, the company didn’t blame environmental costs for its woes. It pointed to cheap imports and a difficult economy.
And final operator RG Steel didn’t mention cleanup costs when it filed for bankruptcy protection last year, instead blaming its cash crunch on a tough steel market and a breach of contract.
‘Get my family out’
Christine Gangi lived less than a mile from the plant for 13 years, battling the kish that blew into her pool, yard and home. She spent years fighting with Bethlehem Steel and trying to get state and federal environmental regulators to do more.
All along, she said, MDE officials told her that the kish was just a nuisance and that living near the plant wasn’t hazardous.
But she worried as her children developed health problems. Her youngest child had seizures as a baby, she said. Her middle child developed asthma. Her eldest, age 10 when they moved in, began suffering from frequent bouts of strep throat.
Eventually, Gangi said, she rarely let them go outside. They couldn’t even swim in their pool.
“It was very stressful on the family,” she said. “If my children wanted to go to a friend’s house, I had to be reassured, ‘They’re going to be inside.’ ”
Gangi initially thought the 1997 cleanup agreement would help, but she quickly lost hope. In 1998, she and her husband sold the house on Sparrows Point Road that they’d spent years remodeling and moved to White Marsh.
“I had to get my family out of there,” she said.
She sees the strain of those years, and the upheaval of the move, as a factor in the breakup of her marriage. And she still doesn’t think of White Marsh as home. Sparrows Point was home. She didn’t want to leave.
“It was a beautiful home,” Gangi said. “It was an absolutely beautiful home.”
Barkley, who stayed, wishes she hadn’t.
She and her husband moved in because the location and house were perfect, and she said she got assurances beforehand from the EPA that the steel mill was much cleaner than it had been.
But after years of kish, Barkley is haunted by fears that pollution affected her now-adult children’s health in ways that might not yet be apparent.
“It’s a burden I’ll carry until I die,” she said. “You don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”
The kish didn’t stop after the 1997 agreement, Barkley said. It kept coming and coming, at least once and sometimes four or five times a week under Bethlehem Steel, she said.
In 2007, MDE ordered the mill’s then-operator to take steps to limit the kish falling on nearby neighborhoods. The agency said it received far fewer kish complaints in recent years — zero since 2009 — and Barkley said the fallout events did decrease under the last few owners.
At the end, it was down to perhaps once a month, she said. But it still would come, and she’d always be braced for it.
“It didn’t stop until they actually shut the plant down,” she said.
“Patriotism is more than just a symbolic gesture,” he said. “It’s time for people who call themselves patriots to start taking their checkbook and investing it in ‘We the people.’ Start building a plant here. Stop taking the easy way out and outsourcing these jobs to China and Indonesia. Invest in the people of America.”
The steelworkers erupted in applause.