From Steel Mill to Scrap Yard? The Agony of Sparrows Point Drags On

Bruce Vail

The fate of Sparrows Point mill, once the world's largest steel mill, remains uncertain after being sold in bankruptcy last week.

BAL­TI­MORE- – Once the might­i­est steel-mak­ing com­plex in the west­ern world, Maryland’s Spar­rows Point mill was sold for scrap at a bank­rupt­cy sale last week.

In a con­fused and uncer­tain process, RG Steel, the absen­tee own­er of the mill, announced it had auc­tioned the prop­er­ty to a com­pa­ny that spe­cial­izes in the demo­li­tion and scrap­ping of out­dat­ed indus­tri­al sites. The sale, how­ev­er, has not been con­firmed by the bank­rupt­cy court, and thorny legal and finan­cial issues seem like­ly to pre­vent any speedy con­sum­ma­tion of a deal to dis­man­tle the mill.

Accu­rate and reli­able infor­ma­tion is just not avail­able right now,” says Fron­da Cohen, a spokesper­son for Kevin Kamenetz, the top elect­ed offi­cial in Bal­ti­more Coun­ty. The coun­ty, which rings the city of Bal­ti­more and embraces the vast mill and sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ties dom­i­nat­ed by Spar­rows Point steel­work­ers, is offi­cial­ly object­ing to the sale, Cohen says.

Accu­rate and reli­able infor­ma­tion has been in short sup­ply for the work­ers at Spar­rows Point as well, she adds. Some 2,000 employ­ees of RG Steel were laid off start­ing in ear­ly June and have been anx­ious­ly await­ing any news about the fate of their jobs.

One ray of hope might come from the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW), which rep­re­sents most of the employ­ees at Spar­rows Point. (Full dis­clo­sure: The USW is an In These Times spon­sor.) Cohen says the union is said to have nego­ti­at­ed a six-month mora­to­ri­um on any demo­li­tion work while efforts are made to find an alter­nate buy­er who will resume steel-mak­ing at the his­toric mill.

But thus far, says Deb­o­rah Rudacille, author of Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an Amer­i­can Mill Town, the col­lapse of Spar­rows Point has been like watch­ing a slow-motion train wreck.”

Raised in Dun­dalk, Md., one of sev­er­al steel­work­er com­mu­ni­ties adjoin­ing Spar­rows Point, Rudacille writes in her 2010 book about the impact that the demise of the mill’s for­mer own­er, Beth­le­hem Steel, had on local fam­i­lies. Some 25 years of slow­ly declin­ing com­pa­ny for­tunes cul­mi­nat­ed in the 2001 bank­rupt­cy of Beth­le­hem Steel, an event that shat­tered the tran­quil­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty of the mill town.

There were about 30,000 peo­ple work­ing there when I was a kid,” says Rudacille, 54. The bank­rupt­cy accel­er­at­ed the decline pre­cip­i­tous­ly, she says, as the prop­er­ty was passed from one own­er to anoth­er over the next decade. It always seemed that a new own­er would invest in the mill and things would turn around, but these com­pa­nies only wound up pick­ing at the [mil­l’s] car­cass,” she says.

Refer­ring to the prospect of the mil­l’s demo­li­tion, Rudacille says, it is sort of like a fam­i­ly where a mem­ber has been sick for a long, long time. It’s not unex­pect­ed when the end comes, but it still has a strong emo­tion­al impact, and there is a peri­od of mourning.”

For Dun­dalk-based politi­cian John Olszews­ki, Jr., the ques­tion now becomes whether some of the dam­age to the com­mu­ni­ty can be repaired.

The union is opti­mistic, or at least hope­ful, that there is a buy­er to come in and make the cap­i­tal upgrades,” to revive steel­mak­ing, he says. I don’t know if that will happen….but we need to think about what hap­pens if that doesn’t take place.”

The Spar­rows Point mill is a unique indus­tri­al site, with a deep-water pier for han­dling import­ed iron ore and excel­lent rail con­nec­tions to the nation­al dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work, Olszews­ki notes. It is a large site, which could eas­i­ly han­dle new indus­tri­al fab­ri­ca­tion busi­ness­es or some sort of assem­bly work. There has even been some talk about the Port of Bal­ti­more tak­ing over some part of it,” he says, because of the mil­l’s out­stand­ing trans­porta­tion infrastructure.

The impor­tant goal is to gen­er­ate new jobs for the bat­tered Dun­dalk com­mu­ni­ty, says Olzews­ki, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty mem­ber of the state House of Del­e­gates. State and local polit­i­cal lead­ers are already orga­nized for some long-term plan­ning for the future of Spar­rows Point area, he says, and it is time to ratch­et up those efforts in light of the finan­cial trou­bles at RG Steel.

Both Olzews­ki and Cohen point to unre­solved envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion issues as an area in need of improve­ment. First opened in 1890, the Spar­rows Point mill pro­duced vast amounts of pol­lu­tion, in addi­tion to the pig iron, steel rails, soup cans and count­less oth­er prod­ucts that gen­er­at­ed steady prof­its for near­ly a cen­tu­ry. Accord­ing to doc­u­ments filed in the RG Steel bank­rupt­cy case, fed­er­al and state offi­cials are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned that they will be left hold­ing the bag for the cost of the cleanup should future own­ers try to shift the cost to the government.

USW spokesman Tony Mon­tana says con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments between the union and RG Steel pre­vent him from mak­ing any offi­cial state­ments at this time. The will­ing­ness of the USW to do any­thing with­in rea­son to help restart the mill is well known, he says, but a more com­pre­hen­sive state­ment will have to wait until there are new devel­op­ments in the bank­rupt­cy court.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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