"I don't want this to go down this way, I can tell you that," he said the morning after the auction. "My members are fighters and I'm a fighter, and we haven't given up."

His plan is to use the six-month grace period promised by Hilco to find another buyer — an industry buyer, someone with the ability to run Sparrows Point and the interest in doing so. While no potential operators bid on the plant, that may reflect the speedy auction process more than a lack of interest. Or so Rosel and others hope.

It's a last-chance effort. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said on Wednesday that he'll work with the union to try to make it happen. A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would also offer his support.

Government officials already are fielding ideas. Niall H. O'Malley, managing director of Blue Point Investment Management, a Towson advisory firm, and no relation to the governor, pitched one to a state economic development commission on Thursday. He suggested reducing Maryland's corporate income tax rate in a big way on profits generated from investments in new manufacturing facilities for 10 years.

He said such a move would show that officials are serious about wanting Sparrows Point and other manufacturers to thrive, and they wouldn't have to offer incentives upfront to do it.

"It does sound like there is a window of opportunity," O'Malley said of the steel mill. "This is a huge legacy manufacturer and one that should not be ignored."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation thinks another issue shouldn't be ignored — steelmaking toxins on the site and in the water. The 2,400-acre complex sits against the Patapsco River, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as Bear Creek, Jones Creek and Old Road Bay.

Among other problems, the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen, has been found in groundwater in the complex's Coke Point peninsula "at levels thousands of times" above what the Environmental Protection Agency determined is safe, said Jon Mueller, the foundation's vice president for litigation.

A 1997 consent decree between Bethlehem Steel, the EPA and the state laid out requirements for the company to find and remediate contamination it had caused. Then came Beth Steel's bankruptcy. In 2011, a federal judge ruled that the terms of the 2003 bankruptcy sale meant that the new owner couldn't be held liable for toxins created before that point.

The consent decree still does require any owner to identify contamination in the water nearby and to fix more recent problems, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said. The nonprofit is worried that the second bankruptcy will throw those efforts into limbo — particularly with a buyer specializing in liquidation — unless it is made clear in any sale order that the responsibilities don't end with RG Steel. The foundation as well as both state and federal environmental regulators have filed objections in the case.

"We represent a number of individuals who … live nearby and who fish or used to fish right there in Bear Creek or used to swim in Bear Creek and are afraid to do so because they don't really know what's in the water," Mueller said. "The uncertainty is what continues to haunt people."

Residents near Sparrows Point filed a lawsuit Thursday against RG Steel and a cement maker there, seeking damages for alleged risks to their health and contamination of their property.

If the mill is scrapped, its components could spread to the four winds, some intact, some melted down. Rudacille, whose father, grandfathers and other relatives worked at the mill or the shipyard, sees a sad sort of full circle to that possible end.

Sparrows Point was built in part using the remains of the Ashland Iron Works in Cockeysville, she said.

"Now they're probably going to break it down and recreate it somewhere else," she said.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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