As the city prepares to sign an agreement to clean up a contaminated tract of land in south Provo, officials now know what kind of environmental mess with which they're dealing.

The city has brokered a deal with U.S. Steel, the nation's largest steelmaker, and the state Department of Environmental Quality to remove hazardous waste from the old Ironton plant on U.S. 89 at no cost to the city. U.S. Steel and another company made steel on the site for nearly 40 years until the plant shut down in 1962.Provo holds an option on the property, the largest undeveloped industrially zoned tract in the city. It wants to buy the land and develop a business park and perhaps a minor league baseball stadium or in-ter-mod-al transportation center.

But before the city proceeds further on the deal, it wants to hear from residents. Provo will hold a public open house Thursday at Maeser Elementary School from 7 to 9 p.m. Representatives from the city, U.S. Steel and the environmental quality department will be on hand to answer questions. Information also is available on the city Web site (www.provo.org).

"The environmental impacts of that site, by and large, were created during U.S. Steel's tenure," said Jim Volanksi, the Pittsburgh-based company's regulatory compliance manager.

Although there was never any question about that fact, no one knew for sure what kind of nasty chemicals or materials the company left behind. Several cursory studies done in the 1980s were incomplete.

U.S. Steel has spent about $400,000 probing the area the past 18 months. The most pervasive contaminant is a group of semi-volatile organic compounds generally known as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons contain chemicals such as benzene and methane. The study also found other dangerous materials scattered across the long, narrow site, including:

- An unspecified amount of asbestos.

- Wooden slats.

- 700 cubic yards contaminated with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

- Tar.

- 15,000 gallons liquid and 200 cubic yards solidified lead.

- 1,000 cubic yards of lead-contaminated soil.

- Motor fuel - a plume stretching 300 feet by 240 feet and 5 feet deep.

- Benzene - slightly elevated level in groundwater.

- Slag - 80,000 cubic yards tainted with polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

The contamination was less widespread than initially thought. It's nothing like a Sharon Steel tailings site, though some of the chemicals at Ironton are dangerous to public health and the environment. But very little, if any, leached into the groundwater, said Brent Everett, section manager for the state environmental quality department's Superfund branch.

"We feel pretty confident that they have pinpointed the areas of concern," he said. The department oversees hazardous-waste removal under the state's year-old voluntary environmental cleanup statute. The law allows companies or individual to bypass the cumbersome Superfund program.

Despite the ominous names of some of the steel mill's leftovers, officials say it won't be as difficult or as expensive to clean up as predicted.

"It's a lot less than what was originally thought," said Leland Gamette, Provo economic development director. Earlier, hundred million-dollar estimates have shrunk to a sliver of that, probably less than $5 million. Officials won't say exactly how much the cleanup will cost.

Under the proposed agreement, U.S. Steel would pay remediation costs on the condition it be reimbursed should Provo profit from developing the land, which could take years.

"We see an opportunity to recoup some of our costs," Volanksi said. "We are not expecting any kind of immediate windfall reimbursement."

Provo took an a $15,000-a-year option on 149 acres in 1992 in hopes of being the catalyst to making the land usable again. The option allows the city to buy the property for $3,000 an acre, totaling $447,000. It already owns another 64 acres in the area.

The Ironton property was the subject of controversy and misperception in the last mayoral election because Mayor Lewis Billings and a partner own the section on which Provo owns an option. The city obtained the option long before Billings became associated with the city. He has removed himself from discussions about the future of Ironton.

U.S. Steel has a three-phase attack planned for the dirty remnants, including waste removal and capping, which could be complete by early next year.

After the hazards are removed, Provo can spend a $200,000 Brownfields grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to devise development plans for the largest vacant stretch of land in the city. Gamette envisions an industrial/commercial business park and possibly even a minor league baseball stadium on the site.

Columbia Steel Co. built the mill just west of U.S. 89 between Provo and Springville in 1923 and operated it until 1930. U.S. Steel later acquired and ran the plant until 1962. At the time of its closing, the site contained two blast furnaces, a sintering plant, a pig iron machine, two batteries of coke ovens with a byproducts plant and a power station and other facilities.