Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s decision to idle its coke ovens at Sparrows Point because of chronic pollution problems comes as the federal government turns up the heat on the nation's steel industry to cut down on toxic emissions.
Bethlehem, which announced yesterday it would stop makincoke at Sparrows Point until it can fix leaks from its ovens, is the third steelmaker in the mid-Atlantic region to be sued this year by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Though spokesmen for Bethlehem Steel and for the EPA said thcompany made its decision to halt coke production independently from state and federal enforcement actions, industry officials predicted that other steelmakers may follow Beth Steel.
A number of American steel companies are finding it hard tcomply with federal air pollution regulations and have threatened to close their coke operations, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, a Washington-based trade association.
The EPA, which sued Bethlehem Steel in April seeking $25,000 day for alleged pollution violations dating back to 1983, also took court action this year against LTV Corp.'s Steel Unit in Pittsburgh, Pa., and against the USS Division of USX Corp. in Clairton, Pa.
Bethlehem's decision to idle its coke ovens could result in thlayoffs or retraining of 500 workers, but the financial blow to the company may be softened for the time being by the availability of cheap coke on the market, industry analysts say.
Bethlehem, which had been producing on premises half the coke used at Sparrows Point, said it will get some of its coke from its other operations in Pennsylvania.
The company also recently signed a $62.3 million agreement tpurchase coke made in Japan from an Australian firm, said J. Clarence Morrison, an analyst with Prudential Bache Research in New York.
"The EPA standards appear to be highly restrictive and the neeffect is that jobs are being transported to Japan," said Morrison.
Charles Bradford, an analyst with UBS Phillips & Drew in NeYork, said the Japanese have been able to rehabilitate their coke manufacturing facilities to cut down on pollution. Now the
Japanese are the main suppliers of coke to American steel mills, he said.
Bradford and other analysts said they were perplexed by the problems plaguing Bethlehem's coke operations at Sparrows Point, particularly the newest unit. That unit, called a battery, was installed in 1982, and coke batteries normally have a life of 30 years.
But even the newest battery has spewed black smoke into thsky over Sparrows Point. And the plant has been unable to halt chronic leaks of coke oven gases and particulates from its older batteries, despite pledging to undertake a five-year, $92 million overhaul two years ago.
The plant has been fined $470,600 in the past four years by thMaryland Department of the Environment, and two-thirds of those fines were for coke oven leaks, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the department. The state filed suit seeking more than $1 million in penalties after Bethlehem Steel failed to meet deadlines for upgrading the plant's pollution controls, and that action is pending.
Since that suit last October, the plant has amassed another 22pollution violations, Goheen said, although the frequency of leaks from the ovens has dropped by nearly two-thirds since last fall. The state has not levied any more penalties, but instead joined in EPA's suit.
Officials in EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia were reluctanto comment on the suits, all of which are pending.
But Amanda Agnew, an environmental engineer in EPA's Officof Air Quality Planning and Standards near Durham, N.C., said, "We don't consider [Sparrows Point] one of the better performing coke ovens."
USX Corp.'s Clairton Works has some of the industry's cleanecoke ovens, Agnew added, but the EPA lawsuit indicates that even that plant has had problems.
Steelmaking, and especially coke production, are inherentldirty. But the key to relatively pollution-free operations lies in routine maintenance of the ovens, said Agnew, who is working on drafting new coke oven emission standards for the industry.
Coke is produced by baking coal at high temperatures for 2hours in huge ovens. The coke is then pushed out of the ovens and placed in blast furnaces, where it melts iron ore to make steel.
The EPA, facing a December 1992 deadline set by Congress, iplanning to try to set new limits on coke oven emissions by negotiating with industry.
Meanwhile, more than two dozen steel producers are among 60companies that EPA Administrator William K. Reilly has asked to voluntarily cut their emissions of 17 toxic chemicals.
Coke oven gases are a mixture of many toxic chemicals, anresidents living near steel mills with coke-making operations face higher risks of cancer than the general populace, according to EPA.
In the North Point neighborhoods near Sparrows Point, residentsaid they were glad there would soon be an end to the soot and odors they say emanates from Bethlehem Steel.
"We don't want to see anybody out of a job, but neither can wcontinue with this black stuff flying through our neighborhood all the time," said Virginia Tolbert, president of the North Point Peninsula Community Coordinating Council.
"Employees always get the brunt of a company that pollutes,said Janet Wood, president of the Wells-McComas Community Association. Although the coke oven shutdown may put some out of work and could cost Bethlehem Steel more, she said that "with Maryland having the highest cancer rate in the country, you have to make companies come into compliance."