Baltimore County voters who care about the ailing steel mill at Sparrows Point – where 1,000 to 1,200 workers are facing layoffs – may like to know where the two candidates for county executive stand on the issue of the mill’s future.
With the election a week away and the company seeking a buyer for the sprawling southeast Baltimore County facility, The Brew contacted the two major candidates to get their views on how the county government could help the mill.
Republican Kenneth C. Holt, a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley, wants to revive production and increase employment at Sparrows Point through government-sponsored advice on the changing global marketplace for steel. He sees the need for “new blood” and supports the sale of the plant by its current owner, Severstal.
Democratic candidate Kevin Kamenetz does not necessarily see the future of Sparrows Point tied to steelmaking. In a statement to The Brew, he expressed a willingness to redevelop the property for what he called “globally competitive uses” and called on federal funds to underwrite what he considers the all-important task of cleaning up the plant’s existing hazardous wastes.
Here’s more of what the two are saying.
The GOP hopeful has been reaching out to steelworkers to tell them about what he calls his Sparrows Point Recovery Plan.
“I will fight to protect union jobs and keep the plant running, thriving and growing,” Holt wrote in an email that United Steelworkers Local 9477 President John Cirri included in an Oct. 22 message to members.
Among the elements of the plan Holt outlined in that email: creating a county government office focused on gathering “data on global trade and transportation logistics” that could give the county “insight into trends in the market that could lead to important market knowledge as well as rapid and effective response in times of need or opportunity.”
Holt expanded on this idea in a phone interview over the weekend.
“If we dedicated somebody within the county department of economic development, maybe a group of people, to put their arms around this problem, maybe even established an office at the Point, we could provide some value-added to the new owner and show the owner we are committed to helping them succeed,” he said.
The county could also support and encourage the mill’s owners to “take advantage of a down economy to retool to better equip themselves for the 21st century,” he said.
On the subject of the lingering environmental issues at Sparrows Point, which were supposed to be cleaned up as part of a consent decree signed 13 years ago, Holt said he would speed the matter to a swift resolution.
“It’s deplorable that the environmental degradation issue has been allowed to continue for years without them [the EPA and Maryland Department of the Environment] effectively addressing it,” Holt said, explaining that “it is an economic drag on the surrounding businesses.”
Holt wants to explore the use of new technologies to clean up contamination. “There may be construction solutions or dredging or buffers or encapsulating or capping,” he said, citing the contaminated Allied Chemical property at the Inner Harbor that was for years “a sore thumb” but is now “a very well-developed piece of property.”
He also wants to explore relaxing unnecessary regulatory requirements for the clean-up.
“I’m of the mindset that layering on regulations and constraints . . . is going to strangle that operation,” he said. “They need to be unfettered.” He said he would encourage “looking to see if there is some latitude within the consent decree to be creative.”
Holt also said he would identify the Sparrows Point area as an enterprise zone.
“If for whatever reason Severstal is not going to make it,” he said, “we’ve got to look at new blood, some new hope for a viable employer in that area.”
In Search of a White Knight
Asked if the Point needs a new owner, Holt said, “Definitely – this is the right time for a white knight.”
But figuring out “the right company, with the right business plan” can be difficult, he added, citing the example of the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., disqualified from bidding for a slots parlor license in Maryland after they failed to pay licensing fees. “They were looked at as the white knight and they proved to be disastrous.”
“I think we can be part of the coaching squad or rooting squad,” he said. “That’s the state’s role, government’s role, the county executive’s role.”
“Fundamentally, I feel Sparrows Point is a treasure and an asset of the county and the state” he said. “It can’t be in limbo for too much longer.”
Up to now, the Democratic candidate for county executive has not said what he would do to help the struggling steel mill. But in a statement issued Friday by his spokesman, Peter Clerkin, Kamenetz outlined his strategy.
The first step would be cleaning up hazardous wastes at Sparrows Point, noting that environmental liability “has proven to be the main roadblock to redevelopment” of the 2,500-acre peninsula.
Kamenetz said he would “seek federal funds to remove hazardous waste at the site,” a task that could easily top $50 million.
He did not say whether he planned to apply for Superfunds – a federal program which currently has a backlog of 1,300 sites – or what he would do if those funds did not materialize.
Sparrows Point Not Globally Competitive
In contrast to Holt, who hopes to restore Sparrows Point to its former steelmaking glory, Kamenetz did not rule out using the site for industrial uses other than steelmaking.
For the last 16 years, despite generous tax write-offs from the county, Sparrows Point has not been successful in competing in the marketplace “due to the global migration of steel production to countries such as China where steel is produced and exported at a much lower cost than domestic steel,” he said.
As a result, “any efforts to promote steel production at this plant must involve federal efforts to protect domestic steel production to make it competitive on the global market.”
Kamenetz pledged to work closely with the Steelworkers and other unions “to help craft new opportunities at the site that are globally competitive” and would be willing to use tax incentives to lure businesses to the peninsula.