Baltimore County's bid to break a long stalemate over acquiring 388 acres of Bethlehem Steel land at Sparrows Point is being sidetracked again.
State and federal regulators are negotiating with the company over pollution at the site -- a key issue for the county, which does not want to be burdened with a costly cleanup. Until that issue is settled, the county will not make a decision on acquiring the land, local officials said.
That would slow efforts to pump new, well-paying jobs into the economically depressed southeastern county. At Bethlehem Steel alone, employment has dropped from a high of 39,000 in the 1950s to 5,500 workers now.
In late 1987, Bethlehem Steel offered the mostly vacant land to the county for an industrial park. In exchange, the company received a reduction in utility taxes that has so far saved the county's largest private employer more than $20 million. But fears of potential legal liability from pollutants on or near the six parcels prevented the county from taking control of the land.
County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and environmental chief George Perdikakis said yesterday they recently learned of the state-federal negotiations with the giant steelmaker. Despite their eagerness to make a decision on acquiring the property, both men said it would be foolish to act now.
"There's no way we can make a decision without knowledge of all those issues," Mr. Perdikakis said, adding that he fears some unknown pollutant on company-owned land could leach onto the proposed county parcels.
The county officials said they don't know what is being discussed by the company and regulators -- or how long the talks will last.
Bethlehem Steel spokesman G. Ted Baldwin characterized the talks with state and federal regulators as "nothing," but refused to reveal the nature or duration of the negotiations.
"They're confidential," he said, describing them as "general discussions we have all the time."
A state spokesman contacted yesterday would not disclose details of the talks.
County sources said the talks have been under way for up to two years, and could involve a broad consent agreement designed to control chronic pollution at Sparrows Point.
Robert L. Hannon, county economic development director, said he feels the land offered to the county could become home for a variety of warehouse and industrial firms if marketed well.
Industrial developers have told him that the land is valuable, he added.