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At Sparrows Point, implosion of blast furnace ends one era, starts another

The Sparrows Point steel mill's L Blast Furnace -- the largest and most identifiable building on the property -- will be imploded in early of December, the mill's new owners announced Monday.

The 320-foot-tall blast furnace that once drove the steel-making operation at Sparrows Point will come crumbling down in dramatic fashion next month, the new owners announced Monday.

Officials of Sparrows Point Terminal LLC said the furnace will be imploded in a matter of days or weeks — they can't yet say exactly when — an early step in the plant's cleanup and redevelopment as an industrial campus.

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The L Blast Furnace has been shut down for more than two years, and the vast former steel mill campus is now a virtual ghost town. Still, for many, seeing the furnace leveled will be a sad reminder of the loss of jobs and pride that came with the operation at Sparrows Point.

"It is a great facility. It's going to be a shame," said Joe King, a 69-year-old Baltimore resident who worked at Sparrows Point for 48 years as a supervisor in the new cold mill.

Mike Pedone, chief operating officer of Sparrows Point Terminal, which bought the property in September, said he has mixed emotions about the blast furnace coming down. While it's necessary for redevelopment, he knows the structure, built in 1978, is a visual representation of Sparrows Point's history.

"When that iconic building is taken down, we know the symbol of the Point's steel-making legacy is going to disappear from the landscape forever," Pedone said.

Since the mill was closed in 2012, crews have worked to demolish buildings on the 3,100-acre property. Tearing down the L Blast Furnace will be the biggest demolition to date, and will be carried out by Controlled Demolition Inc., a Phoenix, Md.-based firm that has experience imploding large structures — most notably Seattle's Kingdome in 2000.

Sparrows Point officials plan to perform the implosion on a weekday in early December. They said they'd attempt to get word out to the community, but timing will be determined by a number of factors, including weather.

Steel was produced at Sparrows Point for more than 100 years, mostly under the ownership of Bethlehem Steel. After a series of ownership changes, the mill closed when its then owner, RG Steel, filed for bankruptcy. At the time, the mill employed 2,000 workers, a far cry from the tens of thousands who worked there during its heyday.

Sparrows Point Terminal, which is financially backed by local firm Redwood Capital Investments, has outlined plans to redevelop the site with manufacturing, logistics and port operations. The proposal has the blessing of Baltimore County officials, and in September the company signed a pact with state and federal environmental agencies for a $48 million cleanup on the site.

On Monday, with the implosion looming to jump-start those efforts, the company invited about 100 former steelworkers to the plant for a ceremony paying tribute to the steelmaking heritage.

Many took turns posing with the giant star that once adorned the top of the furnace, lit every year at Christmas. It was dubbed the Star of Bethlehem.

MCM Industrial Services, the company performing recent demolition work, has lit the star each of the past two years since the plant closed. "I didn't want us to be the guys who shut the star down," said David Mardigan, the company's chief executive officer.

Former millworker Malcolm Addison led a team from MCM that brought the star down about a month ago, he said, fashioning a hoist and pulley to lower it 320 feet to the ground. It was stowed in a building where workers refurbished and rewired it.

Mardigan said he hopes to work with Sparrows Point Terminal to find a spot for the star this holiday season. Its permanent home has yet to be chosen, but Pedone pledged it would "be part of a long-term plan to ensure an appropriate remembrance of the Point's legacy."

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of several officials attending Monday's ceremony, said implosion of the furnace would be a "three-Kleenex affair." She and other officials — Sen. Ben Cardin, U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Comptroller Peter Franchot — said they believe Sparrows Point can again become an economic engine under the new owners.

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Donald Kellner, a former steelworker who remains involved with the United Steelworkers union, said it's time for former workers to focus on Sparrows Point's future.

Motioning to members of the Dundalk High School choir who performed Monday, he said: "We've got to find jobs for these kids."

Hugh Burgan, 70, put in 48 years as an engineer at Sparrows Point. As he stood with former co-workers checking out the star on Monday, he said the loss of the L Blast Furnace won't make a big difference to him. The Westminster man has already made his peace with the end of a steelmaking era.

"It's already hit me," he said.

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