Maryland officials have allowed Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant to dump thousands more pounds of pollutants a month into a Chesapeake Bay tributary than its permit allows, according to state documents.

The plant’s 15-year-old permit — required under the federal Clean Water Act — has never been enforced, The (Baltimore) Sun reported.

Bethlehem Steel has been allowed to operate under a side agreement with the state that allowed the Sparrows Point plant to dump zinc, chromium and lead into Bear Creek off the Patapsco River at much higher levels. All three are among the Bay Program’s list of “Chemicals of Concern” because of the threat they pose to aquatic life.

The 1985 side agreement, meant to last three years, has instead remained in place while the company has negotiated the terms of a new permit with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The state is now in the process of issuing a new permit for the plant.

The agreement came to light as students at the University of Maryland Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic were preparing comments on the proposed new permit. “It’s not that they’ve done anything illegal, it’s just outrageous,” said Rena Steinzor, head of the Environmental Law Clinic.

State officials blame the Clean Water Act, which allows companies to operate under existing permits while new ones are being negotiated.

“This is a case where there has been litigation and challenges to the regulations, all processes that are legal and allowed, and we’ve been with them one after the other,” said Bob Hoyt, assistant secretary of the environment.

Bethlehem Steel says it has been abiding by the terms of its permit and will continue to do so until the standards are changed, said Van Reiner, president of the company’s Sparrows Point division.

Operating under expired permits is not illegal, but critics say it makes it harder to meet water quality goals. The EPA has been trying to reduce the number of facilities operating under old permits in recent years.

The case of Bethlehem Steel is more serious than most, environmentalists say, because of the amount of chemicals released. “Given the seriousness of the chemical discharge, the Department of the Environment needs to take a stronger stand and not allow these things to go on,” said Theresa Pierno of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In 1998, the Sparrows Point plant released 15,000 pounds of lead and other chemicals into the Patapsco, according to EPA records. Many of those metals are known to cause cancer. They also do not break down in nature and are toxic to aquatic life.

The plant’s 1985 permit allows it to discharge a monthly average of 16,656 pounds of sediment, 5,388 pounds of oil and grease, 73.1 pounds of zinc, 59.7 pounds of chromium and 31.8 pounds of lead.

The company arranged the side agreement when it said it couldn’t meet those requirements. The side agreement allowed more sediment, oil and grease, 17 times as much zinc, eight times as much chromium and 11 times as much lead.

The state has proposed a new permit that would allow the plant to discharge, on average, 6,228 pounds of sediments a day, 1,899 pounds of oil and grease, 12.89 pounds of lead and 28.8 pounds of zinc. There are no standards for chromium.

The plant is located at Baltimore Harbor, one of the Bay Program’s “Regions for Concern” for toxics, where states are supposed to prioritize pollution control efforts. The Bay Program’s new toxics reduction strategy calls for states and industries in those areas to reduce discharges of chemicals of concern by at least 15 percent by 2005.