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.