Officials authorized $400,000 for EA Engineering’s work, to begin on July 14, with costs paid from the state’s Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act fund.

In a rare unilateral action, Delaware regulators have commissioned a wide-ranging environmental evaluation at the idled Evraz Claymont Steel plant, a longtime source of problems ranging from metallic soot and mercury to toxic contaminants in soil and groundwater.
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara said the work by a contractor, to begin in mid-July, will cover the entire 425-acre facility, which ceased regular operations along Philadelphia Pike just south of the Pennsylvania line in December.
O’Mara described the move as an effort to document pollution risks and prepare for changes in ownership or use.
Some of the work, O’Mara said, will focus on the extent of risks from recently recognized concentrations of mercury in sediments along the Delaware River near the plant. The problem was identified by researchers assessing elevated mercury in river water, sediment and fish tissues in the tidal portion of the river between Claymont and Delaware City.
“We want to get a better understanding of the hotspots, and one of the hotspots is right off Claymont Steel, one of the higher concentration levels,” O’Mara said. He added that overall mercury risks appear to be easing in the river, and said the toxic metal could eventually be removed as a pollutant requiring detailed state control plans, but high-concentrations still need to be found and addressed promptly.
Timothy T. Ratsep, program administrator for DNREC’s site investigation and restoration section, said that Evraz “was not supporting” the agency’s call for the investigation, so officials turned to a law allowing the state to investigate a release or imminent release of pollution to assess cleanup needs and carry them out, if needed.
“All I can speak to is, we’re going to do the work and it’s not necessarily on an amicable basis,” Ratsep said.
Officials authorized $400,000 for EA Engineering’s work, to begin on July 14, with costs paid from the state’s Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act fund.
Evraz officials could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
In December, the company blamed suspension of operations on “subdued market demand” for its specialty plate steel products, manufactured with steel recovered from scrap. About 375 people lost their jobs as a result. Although the company said it would “consider restarting the operations as soon as market conditions improve,” O’Mara and Ratsep said that the company was looking for potential buyers.
Delores K. “Dee” Whildin, one of those who pressed state officials for years to acknowledge and control pollution from the steel plant, called the latest move “good news.”
“I think they’ve been getting away with bad stuff all along,” Whildin said. “They certainly didn’t like us being involved with the dusts study, and the fact that they were forced into buying a $16 million baghouse” to capture soot that rained unchecked on surrounding areas for decades.
DNREC imposed a series of penalties and cleanup requirements in recent years, and threatened owners with a shutdown order in 2006 after finding that the plant’s actual mercury emissions were far higher than estimates reported to regulators. The mercury was traced to automobile switches in scrap cars that found their way into melt furnaces.
For a time, and under different owners, the site ranked among the nation’s top sources of airborne mercury pollution.
State officials also demanded cuts in soot releases and other improvements in the past, after years of neighborhood complaints. Community members, frustrated over slow responses from regulators, turned for help in recent years to a California-based environmental group, Global Community Monitor, to document and track plant releases.
DNREC sanctioned the company last year for significant violations of hazardous waste-handling rules involving electric arc furnace dust, as well as its failure to secure permits for burner replacements and operating changes in a furnace covered by state pollution control laws.
The plant opened in 1918 along Philadelphia Pike as Worth Steel and operated later as part of Phoenix Steel, the nation’s oldest steel producer. Phoenix Steel went into bankruptcy in 1983. By 1987, state regulators were pointing to problems in the plant’s scrap yard, with a later owner ordered to remove 50 cubic yards of soil contaminated with toxic and long-lived polychlorinated biphenyls.
The plant was later acquired by an investment unit of the Chinese government and renamed CitiSteel, after years of wrangling and international maneuvering. CitiSteel then sold and reformed as Claymont Steel in 2005. A Russian global investment company with coal and steel-making interests in the United States and Canada bought the site in 2007 for $564.8 million.
Although serious pollution concerns were identified, regulators determined in 2001 that “no further action” would be required because of the site’s continuing industrial use.
Ratsep said the plant shutdown and potential change in use prompted the decision “to evaluate the site to see if it does pose a risk” to human health or the environment.
“We want to make sure we have the best data, so the site is remediated, whether its for the existing user or a new one,” O’Mara said.
Initial work will focus on areas between Philadelphia Pike and the Delaware River, as well as under and around a plant retention pond and under the main mill itself, ground that O’Mara said “hasn’t had substantial testing before.”
“It’s hard for us to meet overall water quality standards we’re working on with the Delaware River Basin Commission if we don’t address these opportunities as they come up,” O’Mara said.
Contact Jeff Montgomery at 463-3344 or