AMG told the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington that its scrap baler, installed in the ground there, and other heavy equipment — including cranes and radiation-detection units — took roughly eight months to set up and will require about six to remove. The equipment is worth more than $3 million, the company estimated.

Negotiations for more time are under way. But Goldstein sees in the 21-day mandate a reason for pessimism about the steel mill's future.

"Without this equipment, you cannot run that mill," he said. "If they're looking for an operator, that operator is going to say, 'That's one more hurdle — putting the equipment back in.' "

One of the uncertainties for his company and others is the future of RG Steel's railroad, a shortline service long known as the Patapsco & Back Rivers Railroad. AMG uses it to get to the main line, served by CSX and Norfolk Southern, so it can move its product to the rest of the nation.

Almost all of RG Steel's workers have been laid off, but a handful of railroad employees are still on the job — for now. Chris Ober, president of the local railroad union, which is part of the United Steelworkers, said he has no idea what the plan is or even whether his working members are still eligible for pension contributions.

The federal Surface Transportation Board says railroads in bankruptcy cannot stop operating without the court's permission and it's not aware of any such request. Purchaser Environmental Liability Transfer and its partner, Hilco Trading, have not spoken of their plans beyond general comments to the court that did not address the railroad.

The lack of information is maddening, Ober said. The railroad, he said, is different from the steel mill: "We're still making money."

Many things about Sparrows Point's situation drive locals crazy. Federal antitrust regulators ordered former owner ArcelorMittal to sell Sparrows Point in 2007, for instance — there's speculation the mill would still be running otherwise. Or the fact that RG Steel's parent company is owned by a billionaire but failed 16 months after incorporation for lack of cash.

Or that RG asked for, and a bankruptcy judge approved, as much as $20 million in bonuses to retain 10 executives. Yet the company stopped health benefits and supplemental unemployment pay for workers in August.

Meanwhile, RG's properties sold for so little that it's unclear whether unsecured creditors will end up with anything.

Streckfus, whose Industrial Roll is among the creditors, figures he'll be lucky to get 10 percent of what he's owed. He said he let RG Steel run a tab in the months leading up to its bankruptcy because he wanted to work with it at a rough time, wanted to help out the people there he's known for years and years.

He'd rather not say how much he's owed, but it's a lot.

"I can't tell you how upsetting it is that they let those guys get $20 million in bonuses while they did basically all the small-business guys over," he said.

In another sign of RG Steel's ripple effect, eight companies — in addition to RG — are seeking or have been approved for federal training and health-insurance assistance for laid-off workers, all of them citing RG Steel's bankruptcy.

"We are anticipating more," said Scott R. Jensen, interim secretary of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which coordinates those efforts.

Baltimore County officials estimate that 1,000 jobs, on top of the steel mill's 2,000, will be lost as hard-hit vendors, contractors and suppliers lay off.

Dundalk-based Members First Credit Union said it is working with members buffeted by the bankruptcy, talking through survival strategies. Formed in 1969 by Bethlehem Steel workers, the credit union's history is so interwoven with the mill that 10 or 15 customers came in after the bankruptcy case was filed and asked whether they should be taking all their money out.

But CEO Tony McCollim said he's confident the credit union can easily survive the hit because it's better capitalized than many banks. And the credit union's board had the foresight years ago to diversify beyond steelworkers. Employees from 50 organizations can join.

All local businesses should have made similar moves to prepare for a future without the mill, he said.

"Anybody with any common sense could see that this was a possibility," McCollim said. "Everybody was hoping, everybody was praying it wasn't, but anybody with any kind of business sense had to look forward … to plan for this contingency."

Costas Inn did. Costas Triantafilos bought the building in 1971 because he knew the location would benefit from the "tremendous traffic" to and from the mill. His family once did brisk business slinging beer and cashing checks for steelworkers and contractors, but after contraction in the 1980s, "we knew that was going to be the beginning of the end," said Peter Triantafilos, his son and general manager.

So they built a dining room in the early 1990s in hopes of attracting people from outside the immediate area, families looking for good crab cakes. It was a risk, they said, but it worked. They've even been on the "Today" show.

Though they're confident they'll survive, the Triantafilos family has something in common with Pop's Tavern beyond a North Point Boulevard address. The mill, even as a shadow of its former self, meant business for them.

"As far as we're concerned," Peter Triantafilos said, "we'd love to see the steel come back."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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