Deborah Cicone won't let her young nieces and nephews swim in the backyard pool, fearing they will swallow the shiny grit that sporadically rains on eastern Baltimore County neighborhoods.
She doesn't eat dinner on the picnic table much anymore. And she is letting squirrels eat her vegetable garden because she is apprehensive about the metallic dust that covers the plants.
For Cicone, like others who grew up near the Sparrows Point steel plant, light coatings of red kish on sidewalks and cars were part of childhood. In recent years, that problem has diminished, but now some residents say they are noticing an increase in what appears to be industrial fallout in their communities - this time in the form of a sparkly silver and black grit.
"It's not every day," said Cicone, a mother of two grown children who lives four miles from the Sparrows Point peninsula. "But it's often."
Maryland environmental officials are pledging to investigate the latest complaints about kish, after meeting last week with residents and elected officials about a Sparrows Point cleanup ordered a decade ago.
Officials also are looking into reports of a dark, oily film coating car windows and other surfaces in the area, said Mitchell J. McCalmon, deputy director of waste management administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Kish is a byproduct of steelmaking that becomes airborne during certain processes, such as when a plant dumps unwanted molten iron. The particles primarily contain iron, carbon, graphite and silica, in addition to trace amounts of calcium, magnesium and aluminum oxide - most of which is commonly found in Maryland soil and sediment, said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the MDE.
Kish is considered more of a nuisance than a serious health threat, capable of irritating eyes, nose and upper airways, Ballinger said. Kish on hands and hair has not been associated with any health risk, and the smallest kish particles are about 30 times larger than particles capable of entering the lungs, he said.
When longtime area residents talk of the heyday of Bethlehem Steel, the persistent dust is often part of the discussion. A 2001 book included a typical recollection: Laundry would be hung out to dry on days when the wind was not blowing from the direction of the furnaces, lest the clothes be covered in red.
Reducing kish emissions was among the improvements ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment in a 1997 consent decree with Bethlehem Steel. The agreement also required Bethlehem Steel to identify the extent and severity of soil and groundwater contamination at Sparrows Point, reduce air and water pollution, and recycle much of the industrial waste it buries on site.
Though the steel giant went bankrupt in 2001, succeeding owners have been bound by the consent decree. Environmental officials said the new owners, led by Chicago-based Esmark Inc., which received federal approval this month to buy Sparrows Point from ArcelorMittal USA in a $1.35 billion deal after the Justice Department's antitrust division ordered that the plant be put up for sale, also will be required to fulfill the cleanup agreement.
At last week's meeting, attended by more than 200 area residents, almost all raised their hands to indicate that they are familiar with the kish problem.
David Allen, a spokesman for ArcelorMittal, said in a statement Friday: "We are aggressively investigating our operations as well as those of our on-site contractors to identify and mitigate the emissions that were discussed at the public meeting. Specific information provided by community members concerning these recent events and their timing is extremely helpful in determining the root cause or causes.
"The pursuit and elimination of events of this nature have been and will continue to be a top priority."
The apparent increase in kish this summer is one of several lingering concerns about progress in the cleanup of the 2,500-acre peninsula.
Russell Donnelly, a local environmental activist, said he's troubled by the lack of sampling and surveying of contaminants in wetlands and communities surrounding Sparrows Point.
"We're talking about the air you breathe, the land your houses are built on, the water you drink," he said. "And we don't know what's in it."
Elected officials said they are upset that the owners of the Sparrows Point shipyard are no longer bound by the 1997 agreement because they entered into the state's voluntary cleanup program last year. Community leaders learned of the change while fighting a plan to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on the shipyard property.
"It's my understanding that the cleanup won't be scrutinized as much as it would've been under the consent decree," said County Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, who has asked state officials for more information about the June 2006 approval.
The shipyard's owner, Barletta Willis Inc., has not yet submitted a cleanup plan, McCalmon said, adding there would be a community meeting before the agency decides whether to approve it.
McCalmon assured residents that the shipyard cleanup would be monitored by federal and state authorities.
McCalmon said the Maryland Department of the Environment should have held a public meeting when the shipyard entered the voluntary cleanup program. He pledged to meet with residents more often to discuss progress on the cleanup ordered in 1997 and said information would be available on the Internet and at the North Point library.
Last week's public meeting was the first to be held on progress under the consent decree since the agreement was signed in February 1997.
After the update, state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat whose district includes the industrial area, said: "I'm not sure we know how much of the agreement has been lived up to."
The recent showers of kish are not reassuring, community leaders say.
Deborah Barkley figures she's called 100 times to report kish over the past decade. But she says she has stopped calling the steel plant and state environmental officials.
"Eventually, you figure nothing is going to change," said Barkley, a 53-year-old Sparrows Point resident, who removed her backyard pool, no longer has parties on her deck and has long since stopped hanging clothes outside. "It controls your life. We're cleaning up their mess constantly."
Highlights of 1997 consent decree
Ordered: Survey the Sparrows Point plant for hazardous wastes in soil, groundwater and canals, clean up any that pose imminent health threats and draft long-term plans for resolving less serious contamination.
10 years later: Investigation of five areas believed to be the most contaminated - Greys Landfill, Coke Point Landfill, Humphrey Impound area, Tin Mill Canal - was completed in 2004. A system to recover cadmium and zinc in groundwater at the former rod and wire mill was upgraded in 2001.
A full investigation of the approximately 2,500-acre peninsula and surrounding wetlands and communities is not complete. A study of ecological risks to wildlife was begun this summer.
Ordered: Reduce wastewater discharges into Bear Creek.
10 years later: After building a new wastewater treatment plant, the amount of discharge has been reduced by half, to about 20 million gallons per day.
Ordered: Reduce by up to 80 percent the 630 tons of industrial sludge buried daily in two landfills while taking steps to improve the conditions of the dumps or close them.
10 years later: A $9 million project to bring Greys Landfill up to standards is to be complete next year. Some community leaders are concerned that the landfill has not been lined, potentially enabling contaminants to seep into groundwater. The Maryland Department of the Environment says the groundwater is monitored and that when the landfill is capped, rain water will not infiltrate the landfill, allowing toxins to leach out.
The Coke Point Landfill, no longer used, is to be cleaned up next.
Ordered: Meet tighter limits on emissions from the plant's furnace and reduce releases of kish, a metallic dust that has rained on neighborhoods periodically.
10 years later: Mittal Steel NV- ISG was fined $98,000 in August for air pollution violations that included dumping hot metal without an operational carbon dioxide particulate suppression system. The MDE and elected officials say the kish problem is not as serious as it once was, but the problem has not been resolved.
Ordered: Reduce by 50 percent the 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals reported released in 1994 into the region's air, land and water.
10 years later: The company reported releasing 670,000 pounds of toxic chemicals last year that are regulated by the EPA.
[Sources: Maryland Department of the Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]