Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 43
October 25-31, 2001
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Good Jobs and a Clean Bay: We Need Both

Do not ask for what you will wish you had not got.
— Essays: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4bc-65ad

Over the years, Seneca’s observation has been modified many times. Another take was William Wymark Jacobs’1902 story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Today’s version: “Be careful what you ask for — you just might get it!”

Such truisms came to mind the other day when in the daily press I read the news that once mighty, rich and invincible Bethlehem Steel had filed for bankruptcy. Who’d have thought a few decades back that such an outlandish thing would come to pass?

The Steel, as it is often referred to, has gone to the courts to keep worried creditors from its doors while it tries to continue making red-hot metal. The jury is still out as to whether its financial mettle is as sturdy as the steel from its blast furnaces or as soft as pliable lead we can bend with our fingers.

Probably, in Chesapeake Country, no other name in industry, commerce or development has been more damned than Bethlehem Steel for degradation of Chesapeake Bay. It was the whipping boy of early environmentalists, then referred to as conservationists.

The highfalutin words, ecology and environment didn’t figure much in conversation back in 1956 when I came to Baltimore to join the Sunpapers as their outdoor editor. Conservation was a broad umbrella that covered pollution or anything else that adversely affected land, atmosphere, wildlife, fish — and above all else our water.

Chesapeake’s Canaries
Back then as now, in the eyes of sportsfishermen, rockfish ruled the roost. These silvery creatures with black stripes — later to be become the official Maryland fish — were considered the barometer of the Chesapeake’s health. They were to those who worked the Bay, both commercially and recreationally, what canaries were to miners.

Down in the mines, if the yellow bird keeled over, the air wasn’t right. Time to get out, that meant. On the Bay, if rockfish weren’t prospering, it was time to start worrying about the health of the Chesapeake — and pointing fingers. Oftentimes, the fingers were pointed at mighty Bethlehem Steel, in particular its massive plant on the shores of the Patapsco River whose confluence with the Chesapeake is just a long cast away.

In Bethlehem, Pa., the giant steel maker is better known as The Steel, but its complex on the north side of the Patapsco was by most called “The Point.” No need to say Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. It was the biggest industry in the state, hired the most people, had the most influence, was possibly the most arrogant. It also could have been — as claimed — the biggest polluter — if one doesn’t take into consideration municipal sewage systems, which back then pretty much regulated themselves.

In the ’50s, evidence was emerging that our rockfish could be in trouble. Not big-time trouble, but not as many were being caught, and not as many big ones were on the hooks — even though in those days any striper more than 15 pounds was deemed illegal by the state and had to go back into the brine immediately.

The Point on the Patapsco
The old Tidewater Fisheries Commission, pretty much an arm or at least an agent of the commercial fishery, poo-pooed suggestions that rockfish might be in trouble. So did net fishermen; they didn’t want curtailments: Tasty rockfish represented one of their biggest profit makers.

The Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen’s Association wasn’t around then, but more zealous at the time were the long-disbanded Maryland Rockfish Protective Association, headed by president George Gambrill, and the Associated Sportsmen’s Clubs of Central Maryland under the leadership of Ed Long. Both were critics of Bethlehem Steel.

They were worried about rockfish and they were worried about pollution, but they realized they couldn’t punch mighty Bethlehem Steel out of the picture — even if they could prove the company played a role in what they insisted was a declining striper fishery. They publicly griped about The Point but actively targeted the net fishermen as the key to saving their prized fishery.

It was in 1959, I believe, that a long strike hit The Point, a shutdown of about 120 days, during which some curious things — and not labor related — happened on the Patapsco. People started to catch more fish, and they could see much deeper in the water: It was clearer.

My friend, Baltimorean Joe Dorsey, who taught diving and explored beneath the river’s surface, said the greenish slime was disappearing, and the Patapsco was cleansing itself. Like most others, he considered that sufficient proof that The Point was responsible for not only ruining the lower Patapsco but for raising hell with rockfish of the Chesapeake.

When the strike was finally over, the Patapsco lost much of its new-gained clarity, rockfish woes continued and many who fished held their sport and their fish above steel, high-paying jobs and economic considerations, wishing Bethlehem Steel would fold its tent and simply go away.

Ask and You Shall Receive
Now, years later, they just might get their wish, but it comes after Bethlehem Steel has spent untold millions to clean up its operation. We’re not saying the Patapsco is crystal clear, but rockfish now thrive in it, and last year in late season it was one of the better fishing spots in the Chesapeake complex.

When the Burtons moved to Riviera Beach on the shores of the mouth of Stoney Creek just opposite The Point 30 years ago, at night — before we let the trees grow tall — we could see the glow of red-hot steel and the biggest blast furnaces in the world. The Point was turning out nearly 15 tons of steel a minute, about 15 million tons a year.

Seldom do we see a glow any more, partly because the making of steel is different, but also because no longer do 30,000 people work across the river from us. The entire company, with facilities elsewhere and headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., employs only 13,000. There’s talk that cutbacks and layoffs will severely impact the 4,000 still working at The Point.

Foreign steel these days is made where labor is cheap and where environmental standards are weaker or non-existent. It’s the economy, stupid. Long gone is a community that once consisted of 9,000 workers with company stores, banks, schools, churches and about anything else the village on plant grounds needed — including an elegant country club with golf course, which has stayed around but is now under separate management.

Long gone are thousands of jobs. Now possibly to come on the list of long gones is the nation’s No. 2 steel maker, itself.

It would be a curious tradeoff — a cleaner Patapsco River, which would mean less impact on the Chesapeake, for the loss of what was once the biggest industry and employer in the state.

Is there the possibility we can still have both? Let’s hope so — the long-ago wishes that Bethlehem Steel would leave Sparrows Point, we now realize, mean relocating steel making to other places on our globe where environmental standards are less restrictive. And this is a small world. Enough said …

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly